This chapter reviews progress achieved during the past six years in establishing a broad understanding of what the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) means in practice, as well as the continuing need for national and international engagement. It begins by outlining how internal displacement has become an international concern, goes on to describe the role of the international community, including in legal and operational protection, and then considers the conditions needed for displacement to end. It concludes with an assessment of future prospects, and offers some directions for future progress.

A camp in northwestern Yemen for civilians displaced by conflict.

A camp in northwestern Yemen for civilians displaced by conflict.

In recent years, IDPs have emerged as the largest group of people receiving UNHCR’s protection and assistance. By 2011, UNHCR was engaged with 14.7 million IDPs in 26 countries, in contexts ranging from the humanitarian emergency, post inter-communal violence and protracted displacement. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the largest numbers of conflict-generated IDPs in 2011 were in Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  Somalia and Sudan. Since 2009, the IDMC has also produced global estimates of the number of people displaced by natural disasters, a figure which vastly exceeds the number displaced by conflict.

In 2006, UNHCR assumed lead responsibility for the protection of conflict-generated IDPs within the UN humanitarian system’s so-called cluster approach, a mechanism designed to ensure a more predictable and better-coordinated response to the needs of IDPs. It also assumed co-leadership for emergency shelter and camp coordination and management. Despite questions about whether UNHCR had the capacity and resources to fulfil the task, the agency’s work with IDPs is now well accepted across the organization and the wider international community.

An international concern

The situation of IDPs is fundamentally different from that of refugees because they remain within their own country, and the primary responsibility for protecting and assisting them rests with their government—even if the government lacks capacity to do so, or was responsible for their displacement in the first place. Previously, the principle of state sovereignty was enough to silence the international community in response to internal displacement. Following important developments in recent years, the UN General Assembly and other bodies now recognize that the international community has a legitimate interest in IDPs and the protection of their rights. There is also a growing recognition that refugee protection is complemented by IDP protection, and that IDP protection is neither a substitute for asylum nor undermines that institution.

To be displaced is a devastating experience, often resulting in the sudden loss of homes, livelihoods and community ties, and requiring durable and sustainable solutions. But each case of internal displacement is unique: the cause of displacement may be armed conflict, violence, human rights abuses or other man-made causes such as development projects or actions to preserve the environment, as well as natural disasters. Displacement may affect only a few families or millions of people. Given this diversity, the response to internal displacement must be comprehensive. Instead of being limited to humanitarian assistance, it should address all aspects of displacement, and last as long as needs and problems caused by the displacement itself remain unresolved—irrespective of the cause of displacement and whether IDPs find shelter in camps or outside them, in rural or in urban areas.

A comprehensive response to IDPs requires solidarity on three levels. One dimension of solidarity is required from the host community with the displaced themselves; this is particularly critical for IDPs, in both communities hosting them or those to which they eventually return. A second dimension of solidarity is required of governments with their displaced citizens; the primary responsibility of national authorities to assist and protect IDPs is widely accepted, but situations where national authorities are willing but unable to fully assume their responsibilities call for international solidarity. A third dimension of solidarity is required of the international community with IDPs in need of assistance and protection; situations where the national authorities may be unwilling to act, legitimize or oblige the engagement of the international community to protect and assist the IDPs.

Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake are taken in by a host family outside the affected area.

Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake are taken in by a host family outside the affected area.

Strengthening protection

In recent years, the international community has worked to strengthen its response to internal displacement and to make it more predictable and reliable. The international community encompasses a wide range of governmental and NGO actors involved in humanitarian assistance and development cooperation, as well as civilians and military personnel involved in peacekeeping or peacebuilding. In times of emergency, humanitarian workers distribute food, truck in water, erect tents and provide medical care. But when physical protection is required, humanitarians quickly reach the limits of their competencies. Physical protection may require the presence of police and even military forces; in recent times, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been mandated to protect civilian populations, and sometimes IDPs—as in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of the Congo. When internal displacement and protection needs do not disappear after the emergency phase, the phasing out of humanitarian assistance requires stepping up recovery and development activities to avoid creating a gap in the protection of the displaced or increasing the chance of protracted displacement.

Recognizing that IDPs often fall between the cracks of the humanitarian response, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005 triggered an institutional reform process to address the unpredictability of humanitarian responses and the inadequate coordination among humanitarian actors. The reform introduced the cluster approach, a coordination arrangement to address humanitarian emergencies, including the protection cluster to identify and assess protection needs of IDPs, and to initiate and coordinate responses. It is led by UNHCR in situations of armed conflict, and where requested in natural disasters. Since then, IDP protection has become an accepted task at the international, regional and national levels. However, experience in protecting IDPs is still limited, stakeholders may not agree about what protection entails in practice and how priorities should be determined, and agencies have tended to determine priorities in light of their mandates and work plans rather than on the basis of assessed needs. In 2011, UNHCR initiated an extensive review of the Global Protection Cluster, and in 2012 it emerged with a new mission statement and strategy to ensure a comprehensive approach to protection.

Legal protection

Internally displaced people are entitled to enjoy all international human rights and humanitarian law guarantees, in addition to legal entitlements they possess in their country as citizens and habitual residents. Over the past decade, significant progress has been made in strengthening the international legal framework, and moving legal protection from soft to hard law. The 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are widely accepted and have been reaffirmed by regional bodies, and the African Union’s Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa (Kampala Convention) of 2009 goes further to require states parties to incorporate the Convention into their domestic law and adopt national policies or strategies on internal displacement. However, a major protection gap is the absence of opportunities for IDPs to have their rights ensured, implemented or legally enforced at the domestic level. Yet more than 20 countries have adopted laws or strategies that address internal displacement while others are in the process of doing so and still others have provisions in their disaster management legislation which relate to displacement. The growing number of countries with national legislation on internal displacement is a positive and continuing trend.

Box 5.2 The Kampala Convention: a legal framework for solidarity

Domestic courts and human rights bodies at the regional and UN level remain underused in IDP protection, but there are encouraging signs of increased engagement. At the domestic level, the role of Colombia’s Constitutional Court stands out since it handed down a landmark decision in 2004 declaring that the disregard of IDPs’ fundamental rights was an ‘unconstitutional state of affairs’ and issued a series of orders aimed at improving the situation of IDPs. Regional human rights courts and bodies—including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights—have started to play a more active role in protecting the human rights of IDPs. International criminal courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have also started to hold individuals accountable for egregious cases of arbitrary displacement.

Box 5.3 IDPs and Colombia’s Constitutional Court

Operational protection

Legal protection must be complemented by activities on the ground during and after humanitarian emergencies, aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual IDP. Thus humanitarian organizations often distinguish four categories of protection activities relating to IDPs. First, activities to address past, present or future harm that contravenes human rights guarantees, including actions aimed at providing security and preventing and stopping violence. A second category of protection activities addresses lack of physical access to goods and essential services such as food, water and sanitation, shelter, health and education. A third category of activities addresses the lack of possibilities for IDPs to exercise their rights. Finally, there is a category of protection activities that addresses discrimination against certain IDPs.

An internally displaced woman in Tbilisi, Georgia, who fled the conflict in Abkhazia during the nineties.

An internally displaced woman in Tbilisi, Georgia, who fled the conflict in Abkhazia during the nineties.

Enabling solutions

Ending displacement is rarely as simple as returning to one’s former home, or taking the decision to remain and settle where one was displaced. The humanitarian community considers that displacement only ends when former IDPs no longer have displacement-specific needs. In 2009, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee adopted a Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons, which stresses that the process of finding durable solutions can only be effective if IDPs are able to make an informed and voluntary choice about which solution to pursue, and participate in the planning and management of durable solutions. The framework sets out four conditions necessary for IDPs to achieve a durable solution: (i) long-term safety, security and freedom of movement; (ii) an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, water, housing, health care and basic education; (iii) access to employment and livelihoods; and (iv) access to effective mechanisms that restore their housing, land and property or provide them with compensation.

Protracted displacement is often linked to politics. In at least 40* countries, people have lived in internal displacement for more than five, 10 and even 15 years. In many of cases, they remain socially and economically marginalized, with a standard of living below that of the non-displaced poor, living in harsh conditions and unable to enjoy their human rights, in particular their economic, social and cultural rights. In particular, IDPs endure these conditions in countries that keep them in limbo as part of a policy to encourage their return; yet people who are able to regain control of their lives and become self-sufficient are in a much stronger position to achieve a durable solution, including return. In other cases, protracted displacement is a consequence of the failure of governments and the international community to invest in rebuilding areas destroyed by conflict or natural disasters. Such situations require robust efforts to restore the economic, social and cultural rights of IDPs, and to end their marginalization. Progress of this sort has been made in recent years in a number of countries, but it will have to remain high on the agenda of UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations.

Future prospects

Situations of internal displacement remain very volatile and overall numbers of IDPs remain alarmingly high, but clear opportunities exist for enhancing action on behalf of IDPs and building on positive developments. Continued efforts are needed to reinforce the response of national institutions and international actors, including UNHCR, to internal displacement. The relief-to-development gap needs to be narrowed, and the politics of protracted displacement needs to be overcome. Making perpetrators of arbitrary displacement accountable and providing restorative justice for their victims both deserve more attention. Since most IDPs do not live in camps or collective shelters, governments and the humanitarian community need to be better prepared to identify, assist and protect IDPs living outside camps—including in urban areas—and to support their host communities. Continued solidarity at the community, national and international levels remains critical to addressing all of these challenges.

[Note: Figures marked with an asterisk (*) were corrected on 4 June 2012.]