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"Protecting People on the Move" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sponsored by the Center for the Study of International Organization, New York, 18 July 2000

Speeches and statements

"Protecting People on the Move" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sponsored by the Center for the Study of International Organization, New York, 18 July 2000

18 July 2000
IDPsThe Increasing Complexity of Forced DisplacementRefugees Remain DistinctThe Human CostUNHCR's RoleRefugees and the Internally DisplacedWhat Can UNHCR Offer?The Challenges Ahead

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. I would first of all like to thank the Center for the Study of International Organization and especially its Executive Director, Ed Luck, for organizing this event.

My talk today concerns the challenges of protecting people on the move, and I wish to focus in particular upon the plight of internally displaced people. I believe this is an area where the United Nations and all other concerned actors must join forces more effectively for people who are in need and at risk.

The Increasing Complexity of Forced Displacement

UNHCR's work protecting refugees began fifty years ago. The nature of refugee movements - their causes, composition and consequences - has changed radically since then, as has the international humanitarian response. Keeping the asylum door open has never been easy, even during the bipolar Cold War period. But we are now seeing new and more complex models of displacement.

International migratory movements have become more complex and the categorization of people on the move has become less clear. Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, human rights violations and violence tend to travel alongside people seeking better economic opportunities, those uprooted by natural disasters and others. They often come from the same countries, travel the same routes, hold the same false documents and use the services of the same criminal trafficking and smuggling networks.

As a result, asylum and irregular migration have become seriously confused in the public mind, and refugees have become stigmatized as people trying to circumvent the law. Disturbingly, some governments have even questioned the continuing relevance of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the universal foundation of refugee protection.

But traditional refugee movements across international borders have always been only one aspect of forced displacement. While global refugee numbers have remained more or less stable recently, the number of people displaced within borders has risen dramatically. The available data are fragmentary, but the most reliable estimates indicate that some 20 to 25 million people may be displaced internally around the world - roughly twice the number of refugees.

The phenomenon of mass internal displacement has presented a different sort of challenge to the notion that "refugees" are a distinct group of international concern. Ambassador Holbrooke returned from a tour of Africa late last year outraged by the absurdity of either aiding or abandoning people depending upon whether they fall on one side or the other of an unmarked border. He called for much greater attention and support for internally displaced people, whom he termed "internal refugees."

Refugees Remain Distinct

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I must take issue with this term "internal refugees." Blurring the distinction between refugees and internally displaced people may suggest to some that protection provided within borders is equivalent to the international protection afforded to refugees. Refugees benefit from an international legal regime for non-nationals on the soil of another state. That regime is supervised by a responsible and accountable international organization, UNHCR. We must take care not to undermine the unique legal status of refugees or to lend encouragement to strategies aimed at containing displacement. The asylum door has to remain open for people who genuinely need protection.

The Human Cost

Having made this qualification, I want to echo strongly Ambassador Holbrooke's basic message: we are failing internally displaced people. By "we" I mean to include governments, the United Nations system and the broader humanitarian community. The scale of suffering and the human cost are staggering.

I have just undertaken my 31st mission to Africa since becoming High Commissioner in 1991. My visits have spanned a very difficult decade for tens of millions of people caught up in the continent's many conflicts. The number of people helped by UNHCR in Africa has risen from 950,000 in the early 1960s to 3.7 million in 1980 to nearly 6.3 million today. Yet this massive figure reflects only a fraction of the total number of people in need of protection and assistance in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, for example, an estimated 1.8 million people are displaced internally. Tens of thousands of them lead a nightmarish existence, roaming the bush in search of food, safety and temporary shelter. Caught between multiple warring parties and constantly shifting frontlines, many of these "forced nomads" do not even know who is fighting, let alone why. Thousands have been trapped, wounded or killed in the crossfire.

Beyond this horrific toll are the millions of unseen casualties - people who continue to suffer and die in darkness and silence. A recent study by the International Rescue Committee estimates that 1.7 million people have died in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo from war and violence, as well as from infectious disease, malnutrition and other indirect consequences of the conflict. Children less than two years of age account for a third of the excess deaths. People rendered more vulnerable by displacement undoubtedly have suffered disproportionately.

I have focused upon the Congo, where the situation is most acute and least attended. But I could have drawn equally appalling examples of forced displacement and misery from other parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. In too many of these situations, displacement is not merely a consequence of conflict, but its very objective. The governments responsible for protecting the rights and well being of internally displaced people are often the cause of their predicament, as they pursue calculated strategies aimed at changing the ethnic map of the country or gaining control over economic resources.

The bottom line is that millions of people uprooted by conflict are exposed to extreme hardship, violence and death. What help they do receive is selective, uneven and, in many cases, inadequate.

UNHCR's Role

UNHCR's role in situations of internal displacement is not new. Our operational involvement with internally displaced people spans some thirty years. My Office currently provides protection and assistance to some five million people displaced within borders in a range of operations from Colombia to Kosovo and the Caucasus.

The General Assembly has acknowledged UNHCR's particular expertise and has encouraged our efforts in situations of internal displacement, most notably in General Assembly resolution 48/116 of 1993. The General Assembly's recognition of UNHCR's work with internally displaced people has been reinforced by a series of Conclusions issued by our Executive Committee, as well as by specific requests for our involvement from the Secretary-General.

It is important to note that UNHCR's involvement with internally displaced people usually begins with a request for assistance from the concerned government. Our work in the Balkans, for example, began with a 1991 request from the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. UNHCR's programmes for internally displaced people in Colombia, the Russian Federation and Sri Lanka followed similar government requests, as have our recently initiated activities in Angola and Eritrea. Each of these governments recognized the constructive support UNHCR can offer in meeting the protection and assistance needs of citizens caught up in a displacement crisis. I would like to emphasize that State consent is, and will remain, essential for UNHCR's entry into a situation of internal displacement.

Refugees and the Internally Displaced

With the proliferation of civil conflicts, UNHCR increasingly finds that refugees and internally displaced populations are mixed together. In Liberia, for example, UNHCR faces a situation where Sierra Leonean refugees are living alongside internally displaced Liberians, returning Liberian refugees and other war-affected people who have managed to remain in their homes. In such circumstances, targeting refugees alone presents both moral and practical dilemmas. The humanitarian needs of the refugees and other vulnerable groups may be indistinguishable and impossible to address in isolation.

UNHCR has also found that local solidarity quickly wears thin if internally displaced people and other vulnerable nationals feel excluded and disadvantaged in relation to refugees. The same concerns can arise when carrying out our mandated responsibilities to returning refugees during repatriation operations. To ensure the effective reintegration of returnees in Guatemala, for example, UNHCR brought internally displaced people living in the same area within the scope of certain protection and assistance activities. These included community-based conflict mediation programmes and a documentation project that provided many with personal identification for the first time in their lives.

UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes often target both refugees and the internally displaced in a coordinated manner. For many months during 1998, before the breakdown of political negotiations and the massive flight of refugees from Kosovo, UNHCR assisted up to 400,000 internally displaced people inside the province. Some were hiding in the countryside just a few kilometres from their homes. At the same time, we protected and assisted refugees - still relatively few - who had entered Albania and Macedonia. UNHCR's cross-border assistance programmes from Kenya to Somalia and from Ingushetia to Chechnya similarly have helped people who wanted to remain in or near their homes to do so.

Countries of asylum may also be more inclined to maintain open policies if they see that something is being done to alleviate the suffering of the internally displaced. For example, UNHCR's presence in Colombia and our efforts to strengthen national institutions dealing with internally displaced people give us added credibility when asking neighbouring countries to admit Colombian refugees to their territory.

Refugees and internally displaced people are often the same people seeking to go home to the same places. Where new states are born from conflict - as in the former Yugoslavia and East Timor - the distinction between refugees and the internally displaced may be unclear. Their solutions also are usually linked. Creating conditions for displaced people to return home in Bosnia and Croatia, for example, frees up the housing they occupy and enables refugees to repatriate.

I believe that these examples show the importance of dealing with refugee flows and internal displacement in a comprehensive way. Refugees and internally displaced people are legally distinct, but UNHCR's operational strategies and solutions must be coherent and inter-linked. Comprehensive approaches to displacement can even have a positive preventive impact on refugee flows - not by preventing people from seeking asylum, but by making asylum an option rather than a necessity.

What Can UNHCR Offer?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We all recognize that the problem of internal displacement is complex and the needs are huge. But placing a spotlight on the plight of the internally displaced is only a first step. You may legitimately ask, what does UNHCR have to offer in dealing with situations of internal displacement? At UNHCR, we pride ourselves on being an operational agency - one that is able to translate humanitarian concerns and principles into concrete action in the field. I believe that our main strengths lie in three areas:

First, UNHCR understands how decisions on humanitarian assistance activities - from camp design to the distribution of relief - can undermine, or promote, protection objectives. Care and skill are needed to avoid creating dependency, unequal gender relationships and empowering the wrong people. Equally, properly designed assistance programmes can be an important tool of protection. For example, UNHCR enhances the protection of refugee women by systematically encouraging their participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of projects intended for their benefit. Our community-based approach to programming is particularly relevant for internally displaced people, most of whom do not live in camps.

UNHCR's guidelines and operational experience with the protection of refugee women and children, the prevention of sexual violence against refugees and camp design and site planning also may be adapted to situations of internal displacement. In Kenya and Tanzania, for example, UNHCR has worked with refugee communities and NGO partners to develop innovative pilot projects that combat violence against refugee women through a combination of physical security measures, such as fences and lighting, awareness campaigns and training activities aimed at the local police.

UNHCR's second key strength is that we know how to make the connection between legal principles and practical protection in the field. Refugees and internally displaced people are not protected by the same legal framework. The most important rights of internally displaced people are those they ought to enjoy as citizens. They are also protected by the relevant principles of international humanitarian law and human rights law, as reflected in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

But UNHCR's practical approaches to protection in the field are relevant to both groups. We protect people by maintaining an active presence, developing a detailed knowledge of local conditions, identifying communities and individuals at risk and bringing attention to their needs. We rely upon the competence and courage of our field staff, particularly their ability to build and manage relationships with hostile authorities and local communities under difficult circumstances. A well-timed intervention made by a UNHCR field officer may be the last line of defense against forced relocation, arbitrary detention, the military recruitment of children and other human rights violations.

As a third point, I would emphasize UNHCR's special expertise in achieving solutions for forced displacement. This is perhaps our greatest comparative advantage. UNHCR is presently coordinating repatriation and reintegration operations in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Bosnia, East Timor, Liberia, Myanmar and Somalia. We understand how to analyze and address barriers to return - from strengthening arrangements for physical security and meeting basic humanitarian needs to legal issues such as registration, documentation, amnesties and the recovery of property rights. In Bosnia and Tajikistan, for example, UNHCR has worked to strengthen national protection for returning refugees and internally displaced people by building the capacity of national institutions, legal and judicial bodies, local NGOs and community groups.

We also have experience devising low-key, community-level approaches to building confidence, promoting dialogue and strengthening local mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution. The Bosnian and Rwandan Women's Initiatives, for example, have played a pioneering role in breaking down barriers by bringing women from different ethnic backgrounds together in project teams. The UNHCR bus lines that helped reconnect the severed entities of Bosnia represent another creative effort to increase human contacts and, thereby, encourage reconciliation.

The Challenges Ahead

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome the current debate over internally displaced people, but I think the focus has been too narrowly concentrated upon the quality of the international humanitarian response and the allocation of responsibilities and accountabilities among the key agencies. All the talk of mandates and comparative advantages obscures certain hard realities. I want to close my remarks by bringing these broader challenges back into view.

First and foremost, as I have said many times, forced displacement is a humanitarian consequence of underlying political, social and economic problems. Humanitarian action undertaken without regard for these root causes or a determination to achieve real solutions is doomed to fail. The efforts of UNHCR and other humanitarian actors can only buy time for peace initiatives to bear fruit and help to bridge the gap until longer-term reconstruction and development efforts get underway.

Sustained international political engagement is necessary. Otherwise, humanitarian intervention offers no solution. It can even be counterproductive, because humanitarian efforts create an illusion that someone is dealing with the problem. And lives of humanitarian workers are placed in unnecessary peril to no lasting effect.

The international community has usually been much too slow in seizing the openings presented by peace settlements and much too timid in their support, particularly in Africa. The same governments that insist humanitarian workers put their lives on the line to relieve suffering in the Congo and Sierra Leone do not seem prepared to ensure that well-armed, well-trained peacekeepers are alongside them on the frontlines. We must be aware that protecting and assisting people in the midst of an internal conflict situation is complicated and dangerous. We cannot operate without agreed ground rules and guarantees regarding humanitarian access and security for our personnel and logistics operations.

We also cannot operate without broad and effective collaboration among agencies. For us, this is nothing new. In refugee situations, UNHCR's approach is always collaborative and necessarily so. The current process for inter-agency collaboration on internal displacement, however, has proven to be too slow and unpredictable. I know that this is not a simple issue, but we must develop a more rapid and reliable coordination and response mechanism. All agencies involved need to have clearly defined tasks and responsibilities and, if necessary, to operate under the leadership of the agency having the most relevant expertise and capacity.

UNHCR is working closely with the Emergency Relief Coordinator and OCHA, other UN agencies, especially UNICEF and WFP, and key actors such as ICRC, IOM and our NGO partners to devise a more effective approach to coordination and collaboration. We are discussing different options and, I hope, we are making some progress. But we have much more work to do.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide useful benchmarks and an important point of departure for understanding the protection needs of internally displaced people. The Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced People, Francis Deng, deserves our thanks. We must now make greater efforts to operationalize the Guiding Principles in the field. I am convinced that the agencies having a specific protection mandate, relevant expertise and operational experience - UNHCR, ICRC and, for children, UNICEF - must make major inputs to this process.

UNHCR is committed to greater involvement with the internally displaced. We are ready to place our protection and solutions expertise at the service of inter-agency collaborative efforts. We will be ready to take the lead where our mandate and experience are particularly useful. We are equally ready to play a supporting role when one of our partner agencies is best positioned to provide leadership and direction to an operation.

Finally, I will be blunt. Making a real difference for internally displaced people will require a very substantial and sustained commitment of resources. We will need people, equipment, relief goods and logistical support; and we will need money. The cost will be especially high in Africa.

Having said this, I must say that UNHCR presently exists in a "zero sum" budgetary environment. Any expansion of our activities requires equivalent reductions somewhere else in the world. Donor governments encourage us to budget for actual needs, rather than based on a realistic assessments of our funding prospects. Few donors, however, are willing to back that up with the resources required. UNHCR is facing increasing difficulties meeting the basic needs of refugees, who are our primary and mandatory responsibility.

Any greater involvement with internally displaced people will be contingent upon reliable assurances of adequate additional funding. A test case has already been thrust upon us. Last week, UNHCR launched an appeal seeking $23 million to provide food and shelter for Eritreans displaced by the recent war with Ethiopia, including $13.2 million for people displaced within Eritrea. What tangible support can we expect?

UNHCR has also initiated a new programme to protect and assist internally displaced people in three provinces of Angola. The United States Government has stepped forward and indicated its willingness to contribute $2 million. Will others follow its example?

If peace finally comes to Burundi, the costs of reintegrating refugees and displaced people and rehabilitating the country's fractured infrastructure will be substantial. Other humanitarian crises are on the horizon around the world, and massive internal displacement is a factor in most. Will the political will and funding be there?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The renewed interest in internal displacement within the political organs of the UN and in many capitals gives us a unique window of opportunity to strengthen our common response to this growing problem.

But without more serious attention to the broader context of forced displacement and a stronger, more determined political and financial commitment, the spotlight currently focused on the plight of internally displaced people will soon dissipate into darkness once again.

Thank you.