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Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Who's looking after these people?

Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Who's looking after these people?
Refugees (117, 1999)

1 December 1999
Who is actually looking after the world's estimated 20-25 million internally displaced persons?

Millions of displaced persons get only passing attention from the international community

By Ray Wilkinson

The momentum had been building throughout the 1990s. In the Balkans, humanitarian agencies helped nearly four million people, including many who had not left their country, to survive years of bitter conflict, but critics claimed the aid was merely a figleaf for political and military inaction. International gridlock and a refusal to become involved in a faraway crisis set the stage for the world's non-intervention in Rwanda's genocide. And a fireball of criticism followed the decision by western nations to launch a "humanitarian war" to save the people of Kosovo.

With those crises clearly in mind, when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan rose to address the annual General Assembly meeting for the last time this millennium he outlined a bold new blueprint for the next millennium which, he said, could more effectively help millions of hapless civilians caught in an endless round of civil conflicts.

In essence, the Secretary-General urged U.N. member states to put aside their most jealously guarded powers - sovereignty and the sanctity of national borders - in the higher interest of protecting and assisting civilians caught in the crossfire of war.

"Nothing in the (U.N.) Charter precludes a recognition that there are rights beyond borders," Annan told delegates in September. "There is no doubt that enforcement action is a difficult step to take. It often goes against political or other interests, but there are universal principles and values which supersede such interests, and the protection of civilians is one of them."

In a radical set of recommendations, the Secretary-General suggested the Security Council should intervene directly in internal conflicts, authorizing more preventative peacekeeping missions, creating 'safe corridors' in war zones to enable aid agencies to reach beleaguered populations, enforcing existing international humanitarian and human rights laws and imposing sanctions such as arms embargoes against recalcitrant states.

It was one of the most controversial speeches by a Secretary-General in recent history and sharply split member states. "The U.N. mission is not limited to the settlement of conflicts among states," French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in his speech to the General Assembly. "This mission extends to defending human dignity within each state and, where necessary, against states." Jozias Van Aartswen, the Netherlands Foreign Minister, agreed. He said respect for human rights since the end of World War Two had become "more and more mandatory and respect for sovereignty less and less stringent."

Opposition viewpoint

China vehemently opposed that liberal western view. "Such arguments as 'human rights taking precedence over sovereignty' and 'humanitarian intervention' seem to be in vogue these days," Foreign Minister Tang Jaxuan said. But respect for national sovereignty and non interference in internal affairs were "the basic principles governing international relations" and any other approach would lead to the imposition of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy in world relations.

"We do not deny that the United Nations has the right and duty to help suffering humanity," Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told delegates, "but we remain extremely sensitive to any undermining of our sovereignty, not only because sovereignty is our last defense against the rules of an unequal world, but because we are not taking part in the decision-making process of the Security Council." His view reflected the concerns of many third world or 'weaker' states where humanitarian agencies do the bulk of their work, that stronger nations would 'impose' solutions on them.

The debate will undoubtedly continue well into the next century, but the fallout from what Australia's Canberra Times newspaper called "one of the greatest crusades of the age" could affect not only political and military relationships between states, but also the fate of tens of millions of people currently uprooted by wars and, eventually, the way aid organizations such as UNHCR work to protect and assist them.

At the end of the millennium there were an estimated 11.5 million refugees in all corners of the globe who had fled their countries for a variety of reasons and an even greater number of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), between 20 and 25 million people, who had been uprooted for similar reasons.

News media and the general public tend to lump both groups together simply as victims of war, but there are crucial differences which affect the type of assistance they receive, the legal protection they are entitled to and their very chances of survival.

The rights of refugees, people who have crossed an international frontier in search of safety, are clearly and comprehensively spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention which 133 states have acceded to. UNHCR is the principal guardian of the Convention.

The internally displaced, people who stay within the boundaries of their own state after leaving their homes, often face a much more difficult and hazardous future. Their principal source of legal protection and material assistance is their own government which may, in fact, view the displaced as 'the enemy' or 'enemy sympathizers' in a civil conflict and which may be in no position anyway to offer emergency food, medicine or shelter. Since sovereignty has, until recently been sacrosanct, outside donors have been more likely to support refugee crises rather than victims of internal displacement. And though it is now generally agreed that general human rights law applies to all displaced persons, international protection is still more difficult to enforce for the internally uprooted than for refugees.

Any seismic shift in attitudes in the early part of the 21st century would undoubtedly affect all humanitarian work to some degree, but would probably have the most impact on the internally displaced.

Invisible and ignored

Three of the world's most protracted, vicious crises - in Sudan, Angola and Colombia - are largely internal conflicts and as such are often ignored by a worldwide audience compared with, say, Kosovo.

But consider: in Sudan there are around four million internally displaced people out of a population of 28 million. In nearly two decades of war between the northern, Islamic government in Khartoum and the predominantly Christian and animist south, an estimated two million people have been killed or died from starvation and another 400,000 fled into neighbouring countries. Execution, abduction, rape and even 19th century style enslavement of women and children are commonplace.

The international community maintains a fragile link into this heart of darkness - a humanitarian project called Operation Lifeline Sudan - but apart from an occasional journalistic photo essay, the country's tragedy rarely surfaces in the international community's conscience.

To the south, war in Angola, potentially one of Africa's richest nations with an abundance of oil, gems, minerals and agricultural land, has dragged on for a quarter century.

In an impassioned newspaper article Catherine Bertini, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme said the type of international concern displayed over Kosovo had turned into indifference toward long-running disputes.

"This is the nightmare in Angola," she wrote. "Civil war has been bleeding the country for so long that the cynical observer would be inclined to think it is business as usual there," where "the dead already number in the hundreds of thousands, the mutilated more than 100,000, the displaced well into the millions."

Because of the pervasive threat of landmines, the random killings and kidnaps, disease, the lack of food and clean water, the U.N. says Angola is the worst place in the world for a child to grow up. The legacy of these children, according to Bertini, "should they survive, will be a vast plain of scorched earth."

Colombia's internal exodus has been silent and almost invisible, small groups leaving their homes in the middle of the night, filtering into spontaneous shanty villages which form 'belts of misery' around the country's main towns.

An estimated 700,000 people have abandoned their homes in the last three years, raising the total number of internal exiles to around 1.5 million since 1985, all trying to escape a war being fought over land, ideology and drugs between the Colombian military, Marxist guerrillas and rightwing paramilitary forces. Analysts worry that the largely internal conflict could eventually spill over into surrounding countries.

The list of crises and wholesale displacement of civilian populations is endless. Untold numbers of people remained homeless in Timor as the millennium ended (page 15). In the latest fighting in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of persons trying to escape a bloody summer offensive by the ruling Taliban militia fled to the Panjshir Valley within the rugged Himalayan peaks of the Hindu Kush adding to the nearly one million already displaced in that country. A Russian offensive dislodged more than 200,000 people in Chechnya in the later part of the year. In Sri Lanka, Georgia and dozens of other places, longstanding crises continued to fester.

New actors

As the number of displaced persons increased dramatically in recent decades, so too have the number of organizations and groups trying to help them. Under the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is mandated to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict. While UNHCR's 'core' function is to protect refugees, it, too, became increasingly involved with the internally displaced, participating in more than 30 operations since the early 1970s.

In 1992 Sudanese lawyer and diplomat Francis M. Deng was appointed to the newly-created post of Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons, another recognition that this huge group of disenfranchised people needed their own champion.

It has been a tough slog. Establishing an office may be one thing, but adequately funding it is quite another. Throughout the 1990s Deng has operated on a shoe-string budget and is virtually a one-man band beating a lonely drum for his constituents.

His major weapons are optimism and perseverance. When he first took the job, he told Refugees in a recent interview (page 9), "you could hardly mention the name of any government violating human rights. Today, we are a long way from where we were ... "

One of his first tasks was to look at all existing human rights, refugee and humanitarian laws and other institutional arrangements and determine how these could be better employed to help the displaced.

When Deng began work on a 'legal framework' for IDPs "there was immediate controversy over the question of whether we should be working to develop any new legal principles or even a restatement of these principles," he said. "So someone came up with compromise terminology by calling it a 'normative framework' a kind of disguised reference for 'legal framework.'" When that didn't work, 'appropriate framework' was tried.

Eventually, "we thought it would be much more practical and palatable to some conservative elements," the Special Representative said "if we simply restated existing laws, with an element of reform and a focus on IDPs and instead of calling it a 'legal' instrument use the term 'Guiding Principles.'"

After five years of such delicate legal manoeuvre and hard bargaining between lawyers, academics, humanitarians and governments Deng produced a slim booklet called Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement - a set of 30 recommendations for the protection of the internally displaced.

It defines who the internally displaced are, reiterates the large body of international law already in existence protecting a person's basic rights, outlines the responsibilities of states, but makes clear that IDPs also have the right to leave their country, seek asylum elsewhere and be protected against forcible return to their homeland (see opposite).

Deng acknowledged that the Guiding Principles continue to be ignored by many governments. "However, they are being accepted more and more in a practical way, by more and more players," he said. "As an optimist, I have to believe time is on our side."

Adding to that modest achievement will be slow and tortuous, if the recent fractious debate in the General Assembly in New York is any guide. "In 1948 the Declaration of Human Rights was a major accomplishment, but it was still only a piece of paper," Michael Kingsley-Nyinah of UNHCR's Department of International Protection said. "It took years before it began to be accepted in practice in many parts of the world. Perhaps that is where we are today with the Guiding Principles. It is a first step, but there is a long way to go."

Another specialist added, "We have reached a critical plateau in the debate over IDPs and the role of the Special Representative. The challenge now will be to turn principles into practice. The Special Representative has been a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. The prophet must now begin to deliver."

A cautious approach

When he assumed his post, Deng believed that one organization should become the recognized 'lead' agency for IDPs, a logical candidate being UNHCR. "But I am now resigned to the fact that conventional wisdom believes a collaborative effort of existing organizations is best" at tackling the problem, he said in his recent interview.

UNHCR has been active in IDP operations for more than a quarter century, but it has maintained a cautious approach to a deeper involvement, worried about the possibility of diluting or compromising its own 'core' work with refugees, stretching already limited resources by agreeing to look after millions of additional disenfranchised people, so-called 'turf wars' in an increasingly congested field of humanitarian agencies, governments and even armies, and the practical difficulties faced by its staff in the field.

Since it began helping the displaced, UNHCR has followed a strict set of criteria which must be met before the organization can become directly involved in an internal situation. These include a specific request from the Secretary-General, the Security Council or General Assembly and the consent of the nation concerned.

There were also persistent concerns within the agency about a seemingly inherent contradiction in helping the internally displaced and protecting refugees at the same time. According to this logic, programmes designed to assist people in situ, by their very nature may complicate asylum procedures. Potential receiving countries, for instance, could argue as Macedonia did recently, that there was no need to allow displaced persons to cross a frontier when they would then become eligible to seek asylum, because they were already receiving aid in their own country.

Therefore, according to UNHCR's Executive Committee, a cornerstone of agency involvement inside states is that "the principles of international human rights and humanitarian law and the institution of asylum must not in any way be undermined."

Changing political circumstances often complicate humanitarian assistance. At the beginning of UNHCR's involvement in the former Yugoslavia in 1991 there were widespread complaints the agency had no mandate to help hundreds of thousands of victims because they were 'internally displaced' within the Federation. However, since several regions were on the verge of declaring independence, the counter argument was that today's internally displaced would be tomorrow's refugees and as a practical matter should be helped immediately. A similar situation applied in East Timor during the early days of that crisis.

Despite these strictures, there are many situations where the plight of refugees and the internally displaced overlap and where a single coordinated operation is the most sensible and obvious solution. When UNHCR began helping an estimated 1.7 million Mozambique refugees return home in the early 1990s, an estimated four million internally displaced persons also began emerging from their hiding places. In the most ambitious such project in its history, UNHCR spent around $100 million on projects to help entire communities - returning refugees, the internally displaced and local civilians - to rebuild their local communities.

In the former Yugoslavia UNHCR was the lead agency in assisting nearly four million people, not only civilians who fled the region, but several million internally displaced. After the start of the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in early 1999, the organization's major responsibility was to assist nearly 850,000 people who fled to neighbouring states, but when the majority of refugees went home later in the year, field staff assisted not only the returnees but tens of thousands of Kosovars who had stayed in the province during the conflict.

"In many situations there are more similarities than differences between helping refugees and helping the internally displaced," said UNHCR's Kingsley-Nyinah.

A Canberra Times newspaper editorial summed up the dilemma over the internally displaced: "On whether history will view it (Kofi Annan's initiative) as a quixotic gesture or a first and brave step towards a genuine new world order, rests the prosperity, happiness and perhaps the lives of millions of human beings in the next century."


The 14-page booklet, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement contains 30 pointers for governments and humanitarian organizations to help the displaced.

The definition of the internally displaced "are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border."

The 30 principles include:

  • Principle 2 (2): These Principles shall not be interpreted as restricting, modifying or impairing the provisions of any international human rights or international humanitarian law instrument or rights granted to persons under domestic law. In particular, these Principles are without prejudice to the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries.
  • Principle 5: All authorities and international actors shall respect and ensure respect for their obligations under international law, including human rights and humanitarian law, in all circumstances, so as to prevent and avoid conditions that might lead to displacement of persons.
  • Principle 6 (1): Every human being shall have the right to be protected against being arbitrarily displaced from his or her home or place of habitual residence.
  • Principle 15: Internally displaced persons have:
  • a. The right to seek safety in another part of the country;
  • b. The right to leave their country;
  • c. The right to seek asylum in another country; and
  • d. The right to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.
  • Principle 28 (1): Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. Such authorities shall endeavour to facilitate the reintegration of returned or resettled internally displaced persons.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)