The forced displacement of people within the borders of their own states, by armed conflicts, internal instability and systematic violations of human rights has become a pervasive problem throughout the world. Large numbers of people effectively become ‘refugees’ within their own countries by fault of the government or authorities in power. The United Nations estimates (2008) that close to 1 per cent of the world’s 6.7 billion people are internally displaced persons (IDPs). A host of dangers threaten IDPs during their flight, while they are displaced and even upon their return home or resettlement elsewhere. Yet, unlike refugees, internally displaced people are not protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The displacement of millions of people within the borders of their home countries causes serious humanitarian challenges while the mass flux of populations also threatens the stability of countries and entire regions.
International concern for the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has acquired a degree of urgency in recent years as greater numbers of people, uprooted by internal conflict and violence, are exposed to further violations of their rights. Unfortunately, there is as yet no single international agency or international treaty that focuses on internal displacement. As a result, the international response to internal displacement has been selective, uneven and, in many cases, inadequate. Large numbers of IDPs receive no humanitarian assistance or protection whatsoever. Sovereignty and the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of states present significant challenges to the protection of IDPs and delivery of humanitarian assistance to them. The international community is now exploring ways to provide more sustained and comprehensive protection and assistance to this extremely vulnerable group of people.
In response to the growing international concern at the large number of IDPs worldwide, the UN Commission on Human Rights requested the UN Secretary-General in 1992 to appoint a Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons. The mandate has since been renewed on numerous occasions and assumed by the Human Rights Council (Resolution 6/32). The current Representative, Mr. Walter Kälin, was chair of the committee of legal experts that developed the ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’, which address all phases of internal displacement. The Guiding Principles define IDPs as ‘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 Guiding Principles deal with prevention, protection during displacement, humanitarian assistance, return, resettlement and reintegration and are intended to provide guidance to states, non-state actors and inter-governmental and nongovernmental organisations on issues of internal displacement. The Handbook for Applying the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a tool of clarification and application, explains that the purpose of the principles is not to create new law but rather to ‘restate and elaborate established norms of customary international law, humanitarian law and international human rights law’. This is achieved by reformulating the general norms as they apply to IDPs, thereby making implicit norms explicit. The Guiding Principles are not in themselves legally binding but are finding increasing acceptance, being frequently used by states, international organisations and NGOs.
The UNGA has adopted several resolutions concerning IDPs. Resolution 62/153, adopted in March 2008, drew attention to the situation of the ‘alarmingly high numbers of internally displaced persons throughout the world, for reasons including armed conflict, violations of human rights and natural or human-made disasters, who receive inadequate protection and assistance’ and ‘the serious challenges that this is creating for the international community’. The General Assembly, inter alia, reiterated the relevance of the Guiding Principles and asked states to ‘to provide protection and assistance, including reintegration and development assistance, to internally displaced persons, and to facilitate the efforts of relevant United Nations agencies and humanitarian organizations in these respects, including by further improving access to internally displaced persons’.
At the regional level, the Organisation of American States (OAS) has also adopted several resolutions concerning IDPs reiterating its concern for internally displaced persons in the Americas, urging states, inter alia, to promote public activities and information campaigns to fight racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance towards internally displaced persons; to update procedures to identify those persons in need of international protection; and to urge those member states that have not yet done so to consider becoming parties to relevant international instruments (see, e.g., AG/RES. 1971 XXXIII-O/03 and AG/RES. 2417 XXXVIII-O/08).
The African Union has also addressed internal displacement and put in place a number of different measures to deal with internal displacement. The Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers, IDPs and Migrants in Africa was established pursuant to a resolution of the African Commission in December 2004. The Special Rapporteur is involved in raising awareness with representatives of African governments, civil society, as well as inter-governmental organisations, of the plight faced by IDPs on the continent, the causes of displacement and the rights of IDPs. The Special Rapporteur has undertaken investigation missions to a number of African states where displacement has occurred, e.g. to Darfur, Sudan, in 2004 and 2006.
In order to address the needs of IDPs, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners established in January 2002 the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which consists of international staff seconded by, inter alia, the UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and the NGO community. A main role of OCHA is to assist the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator in responding effectively to the needs of IDPs worldwide and to provide support to field response in IDP crises.
UNHCR has also called for greater attention to the problems of the internally displaced. In response to requests from the UN Secretary-General, UNHCR’s humanitarian expertise can be extended to IDPs on a case-by-case basis, such as when UNHCR assisted internally displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia. Certain experiences, e.g., that of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia, have led to a call for standards explicitly forbidding the forcible movement of IDPs on racial, religious, ethnic or political grounds. Furthermore, enhanced protection for relief workers and others engaged in assisting and protecting those internally displaced is called for.
Another organisation which is increasingly important to the protection of IDPs, is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As the ICRC’s mission is to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, its primary target group is often IDPs. The ICRC estimates the great majority of those people the organisation assists are IDPs. In recent years, the ICRC has been developing programmes specifically aimed at protecting and assisting IDPs. The ICRC’s protection and assistance activities are designed to restore acceptable living conditions and enable people to maintain an environment that is as close as possible to what they are used to until they can become self-reliant again. By ensuring that people can meet their basic needs, these programmes help avoid displacement and, where necessary, improve the community’s capacity to host IDPs or IDP camps, whose presence generally puts an additional strain on the resident population.
The African Union Commission has established within its ranks the Humanitarian, Refugees and Displacement Unit, which coordinates AU policy on forced displacement issues, including internal displacement matters. At the representation level, the Permanent Representatives Committee has established a Sub-Committee of Ambassadors to coordinate policy on displacement issues.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council, is the leading international body monitoring conflict-induced internal displacement world-wide. The Centre conducts training and advocacy and runs an online database providing comprehensive information and analysis on internal displacement in some 50 countries (see www.internal-displacement.org).