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The State of the World's Refugees 2006 - Human displacement in the new millennium - Preface by the UN Secretary-General

The State of the World's Refugees 2006 - Human displacement in the new millennium - Preface by the UN Secretary-General

19 April 2006

The plight of the internally displaced has been well documented over the past decade. But there is still debate over whether they should be recognized as a special category of persons for humanitarian purposes. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, provides assistance and protection to all civilian victims of armed conflict and prefers to target assistance on the basis of vulnerability, not category. The fear is that singling out one group could lead to discrimination against others, fostering inequity and conflict. Making a distinct category of the displaced, a 2005 donor evaluation warns, could lead to their becoming 'privileged'.4

Nonetheless, the displaced do have special needs. Displacement breaks up families and severs community ties. It leads to unemployment and limits access to land, education, food and shelter. The displaced are particularly vulnerable to violence. As an official of ICRC observes: 'It goes without saying that, deprived of shelter and their habitual sources of food, water, medicine and money', internally displaced persons 'have different, and often more urgent, material needs'.5

These special needs have often been ignored in 'situational approaches'. As a consequence, the internally displaced frequently suffer the highest mortality rates in humanitarian emergencies.6 In Uganda, the HIV/AIDS rate among the internally displaced is six times higher than in the general population.7 Even when the internally displaced and other vulnerable groups such as refugees face the same problems and are in similar circumstances they are not treated the same. For instance, tensions arise when UNHCR gives returning refugees seeds and tools but internally displaced persons returning to the same area receive none. In protracted situations, many internally displaced persons remain in near-destitute conditions.8

The purpose of formally identifying internally displaced persons as a category for humanitarian action is not to confer privileged status on them, but to ensure that their unique needs are addressed. Sometimes, approaches that target all affected populations may be the most practical means of reaching the internally displaced. Nonetheless, experience has shown that special attention to particular disadvantaged groups - whether refugees, internally displaced persons, minorities or women - has enhanced their protection. Singling out the internally displaced makes it easier to call upon governments to assume responsibility for them and to press for international action on their behalf.

Internally displaced persons are often intentionally uprooted by their governments on ethnic, religious or political grounds, or as part of counterinsurgency campaigns. In civil wars along racial, ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, the displaced are often perceived as the enemy (see Box 7.1, Box 7.2). They may be associated with an insurgent group or an opposing political party or ideology, or be considered inferior or threatening. In other cases the displaced may be trapped between opposing sides in civil wars or come under direct attack by insurgents, as in Colombia, the DRC and Nepal. Competition over scarce resources or land often aggravates such conflicts, with the displaced bearing the brunt of the violence. When states disintegrate into anarchy, as in Sierra Leone and Somalia, some of the worst atrocities have been inflicted on the internally displaced.

Internal displacement disrupts the lives not only of the individuals and families concerned but of whole communities and societies. Both the areas left behind by the displaced and the areas to which they flee can suffer extensive damage. Socio-economic systems and community structures often break down, impeding reconstruction and development for decades. Conflict and displacement also spill over into neighbouring countries, as has been seen in Central America, the Balkans and West Africa. Clearly, both humanitarian and geopolitical reasons prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call to the international community to strengthen support for national efforts to assist and protect internally displaced persons.


4 J. Borton, M. Buchanan-Smith and R. Otto, Support to Internally Displaced Persons - Learning from Evaluations, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 2005, pp. 14-15.

5 J-D. Tauxe, 'We Should Have Humanitarian Access to Displaced Civilians,' International Herald Tribune, 1 March 2000. For a full discussion of internally displaced persons as a special category, see E. Mooney, 'The Concept of Internal Displacement and the Case for Internally Displaced Persons as a Category of Concern,' Refugee Survey Quarterly, September 2005.

6 R. Cohen and F. M. Deng, Masses in Flight: the Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, Brookings Institution, 1998, pp. 2, 27.

7 'HIV Prevalence among IDPs Stands at 35 Percent', The Monitor, Africa News, 30 June, 2005.

8 S. B. Holtzman and T. Nezam, Living in Limbo, The World Bank, 2004.