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UNHCR and the internally displaced: questions and answers

UNHCR and the internally displaced: questions and answers

1 March 2000

Question: Who are the world's internally displaced people?

Answer: They are individuals or groups of people who have been forced to flee their homes to escape armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights abuses or natural or man-made disasters.

Q: How do they differ from refugees?

A: Both groups often leave their homes for similar reasons. Civilians become internationally recognized as 'refugees' when they cross a national frontier to seek sanctuary in another country. The internally displaced, so-called IDPs, remain, for whatever reason, in their own states.

Q: How are the two groups treated?

A: A second country generally offers a newly arrived refugee a place of safety, food and shelter. Refugees are protected by a well-defined body of international laws and conventions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives in a new country or eventually return home.

Internally displaced persons often face a far more insecure future. They may be trapped in an ongoing internal conflict, without a place of safety to stay. The domestic government, which may view the uprooted people as 'enemies of the state' retains ultimate control over their fate. There are no specific international instruments covering the internally displaced, and general agreements such as the Geneva Conventions are often difficult to apply. Until now, donors have been reluctant to intervene in internal conflicts and help this group.

Q: How many IDPs are there?

A: Exact figures are impossible to calculate. The Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons estimates there are between 20-25 million worldwide, though some estimates are as high as 30 million. UNHCR, which defines its interest in IDPs somewhat more narrowly than the widely accepted definition, cares for an estimated six million people from this group in addition to an estimated 12 million refugees.

Q: The international spotlight recently shifted to the IDP crisis. Why?

A: In the wake of World War Two, the international community focused its attention principally on helping the most obvious victims of the conflict - refugees. In the immediate post-war years, UNHCR was established to further that goal and an international legal framework for refugees was created. As the cold war ended, the nature of conflict began to change, from superpower confrontation to smaller, internal struggles. These wars have helped produce far larger numbers of internally displaced victims.

Q: How has the international community reacted?

A: These civilians have received limited assistance in the past. The International Committee of the Red Cross, as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, has been active in this field for many decades. UNHCR's mandate specifically covers refugees, but in the last quarter century the agency assisted in around 30 operations involving IDPs. The U.N. Special Representative has produced a booklet, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which contains 30 pointers for governments and humanitarian organizations to help the displaced.

Q: What effect has that had on the situation?

A: The Guiding Principles are not legally binding, but Special Representative Francis Deng has said the recommendations - which define who IDPs are, outline a large body of international law already in existence protecting a person's basic rights, and outline the responsibility of states - is increasingly being accepted by more and more states.

Q: What is UNHCR's position vis-à-vis the internally displaced?

A: UNHCR has always had an interest in the protection and welfare of people who are now generally recognized by the term 'IDP' as evidenced by its involvement in earlier crises. It has become involved in operations only at the specific request of the Secretary-General or another appropriate U.N. authority and with the agreement of involved nations. It has been careful not to compromise its own mandate covering refugees and to work within its limited financial and manpower resources.

Q: Given the greater international focus on IDPs and calls by Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. that UNHCR should assume overall 'responsibility' for these displaced persons, has the agency's position changed?

A: UNHCR recently held a series of high-level staff consultations to define its position. It committed itself to 'greater engagement with the internally displaced' and will positively consider a request to become involved when the needs of IDPs are similar to refugees. Should this require extra manpower and funding, UNHCR will lobby governments for the additional resources. It will work closely with other U.N. organizations, the Red Cross, non-governmental agencies and other interested parties to help the internally displaced.

Q: What does UNHCR see as its overall responsibility toward IDPs?

A: The organization will both advocate and mobilise support for the internally displaced. It will strengthen its own capacity to respond to their needs and take the lead to assist and protect them in certain situations. These activities are all designed to provide the displaced persons with meaningful protection, and eventually a lasting solution to their plight.

Q: Who will decide when and where those 'certain situations' arise?

A: UNHCR's involvement will require a request from the Secretary-General or a competent U.N. body and the consent of states or other parties involved in an ongoing conflict. It must have access to affected populations, adequate security for its staff and the resources to complete the task.

Q: Will UNHCR consider taking a 'lead role' in such a situation?

A: Yes. When its protection expertise is particularly relevant or where involvement with the internally displaced is closely linked to the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of refugees.

Q: In fact, doesn't the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons overlap and become inextricably linked on many occasions?

A: In the former Yugoslavia and Timor, UNHCR decided to provide protection and assistance to all uprooted peoples on the basis of humanitarian needs rather than refugee status. Refugees are sometimes a minor component in an otherwise massive internal displacement; Colombia and Chechnya being two such operations in which UNHCR is involved. Effective reintegration of refugee returnees also may require assistance to be extended also to the internally displaced in the same region as has happened in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Guatemala.

Q: How does UNHCR's mandate affect its work with the internally displaced?

A: The organization's Statute has been interpreted flexibly to allow it to work with IDPs. (Article 9 states that the High Commissioner may, in addition to work with refugees "engage in such activities ... as the General Assembly may determine, within the limits of the resources placed at (her) disposal."). The most frequent restraint on UNHCR involvement is lack of security and refusal of access to the displaced by governments and other insurgents. There may also be difficulties in helping refugees and IDPs at the same time. Programmes designed to help people in situ - IDPs - by their very nature could complicate asylum procedures. During the Kosovo conflict, for instance, Macedonia argued there was no need to allow displaced persons to cross a frontier to seek asylum because they were already receiving aid in their own country.