Internal displacement: a consideration of the issues.


While the number of refugees internationally has in recent years been falling, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has been growing significantly. In a survey published in September 2002 the Norwegian Refugee Council supported Global IDP Project estimated there to be at least 25 million IDPs due to conflict, while as of January 2002 the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated there to be 12 million refugees

Although in Africa there have been a number of recent wars between states, most conflicts have been internal, and this in part accounts for the large number of IDPs. The prevalence of unstable states, underdevelopment, weak civil societies, social marginalisation and the lack of accountable governments explain the social and political strife that has produced a disproportionate number of IDPs in Africa. Significant numbers of people, however, are also displaced by natural disasters and large-scale development projects.

Moreover, while the UN, through the UNHCR, has always assumed a major role in helping those who have had to flee their countries of origin because of persecution, the international community has had to give increasing attention to IDPs. The countries with the largest number of IDPs - Sudan, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - have all suffered from protracted civil wars, and others - such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone - not only experienced domestic conflict but have also suffered the collapse of government institutions and services.

However, even with increased attention to the plight of IDPs, the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee reported in March 2001 that the needs of displaced populations "continue to be inadequately addressed". The report attributed this to two broad factors: first, the unwillingness or inability of governments to address the needs of the displaced, and second, "serious gaps" in the UN's response on IDPs.

To confront these weaknesses, make clear the legal framework for protection of IDPs, and to empower the people involved, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement was launched by the UN in 1998. The Guiding Principles (GPs) are rapidly assuming centre stage in any consideration of IDPs, but they are new, often not fully understood, and their implications are still being worked out.

Guiding Principles versus sovereignty

At the 54th session of the General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged UN 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". Operation Lifeline Sudan and the military intervention in former Yugoslavia are but two of many recent examples where the international community has been prepared to override concerns with national sovereignty.

Analyst John Young argues that national sovereignty does not have the same sanctity in international relations as it did at the height of the Cold War. Nonetheless, while few have questioned any of the Guiding Principles, during debates in the UN General Assembly a number of diplomats noted reservations about whether collectively they may serve to undermine broader concerns about sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the first instance, these critics have been unhappy that the GPs were formulated by non-state actors. They have been concerned that principles formulated by people not responsible to national governments (Dr Francis Deng and his team working at the behest of the UN) could serve as a means to justify military intervention. Speaking in 1999 when he was chair of the Organisation of African Unity, the president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said: "We do not deny that the United Nations has the right and duty to help suffering humanity. But we remain extremely sensitive to any undermining of our sovereignty, not only because sovereignty is our last defence against an unequal world but also because we are not taking part in the decision-making process of the Security Council."

Young makes the point that the counterpart to these concerns is the extent to which the UN has the capacity to protect IDPs in the face of states strong enough to stand up to the international community. Russia in the case of Chechen IDPs, Turkey with respect to Kurdish IDPs, and India in Kashmir maintained the right to protect their national sovereignty and managed to keep the international community at bay.

He says: "Also often ignored by the international community has been the forcible removal of ethnic communities. While there was a rigorous international response to abuses of civilians in the former Yugoslavia, such response was not forthcoming until after years of ill-treatment, and there was virtually no response when ethnic cleansing was carried out during the Ethio-Eritrean war and in the DRC."

As Bill Frelick of the US Committee for Refugees has argued, "protecting internally displaced people may demand a more vigorous response than humanitarian agencies can provide. If international political powers are called upon to intervene to protect the lives of the displaced against the wishes of a controlling government, there needs to be a firm consensus."

While noting the concerns of Kofi Annan and Francis Deng that states not be permitted to hide behind national sovereignty, Young stressed that non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is the basis of sound international relations, and will not be readily challenged. Ultimately, he says, there is no ready resolution to this conundrum, and it is one that the international community will have to confront on a case-by-case basis, and for many years to come.

Differentiating IDPs

Critical to responding to the requirements of IDPs is to recognise that they are not an anonymous mass, but invariably a highly differentiated body of people. Their situations vary enormously. Some attention is being devoted to the particular needs of elderly IDPs, but those of the young, women, handicapped and others also have to be addressed.

Nor do all IDPs face the same level of threat. Young cites the example of Sudan, where many people displaced from their homes in western Upper Nile, where the civil war has been bitterly fought, are in a desperate situation, while the needs of millions of southern IDPs in the capital, Khartoum, and other cities and towns in northern Sudan face different and usually less pressing problems. "Protection is the basic requirement of the first group, while the second group's survival is not at stake," Young says.

When is an IDP no longer an IDP?

As noted in the accompanying articles, it is not always easy to ascertain when IDPs cease to hold that status. Some IDPs, such as those who fled from war in the rural areas of Angola, Sudan, and Somalia have now resided in their respective capitals for many years and effectively been economically and socially integrated. These might well not return to their original homes even with peace. On the other hand, others not so fully integrated will begin returning with the first signs of improving security.

In the case of Rwanda, many IDPs were forcibly relocated in 'permanent' villages other than their original homes, and as a result are now no longer considered IDPs by the government, according to the Global IDP Project. In neighbouring Burundi, under the government's policy of "regroupment", some IDPs have been forced against their will to reside in villages.

These examples and others are challenging the international community's understanding of when IDPs cease to be IDPs, and this in turn has led the independent US Brookings Institution to examine the entire issue, with the result that a policy paper is expected to be released shortly. [More details]

Right of return

Another area for debate has been the focus in the GPs on the right of IDPs to return to their homes. Whereas the right is not likely to be challenged in theory, it may either not be realisable in practice or can only be realised in circumstances that may threaten their security. At a regional workshop on internal displacement in the South Caucasus held in Tbilisi in May 2000, participants noted that while most IDPs had a very strong desire to return home, in part not to reward perceived past injustices, where the root causes of various conflicts had not been resolved large-scale and durable returns were unlikely.

Like refugees, IDPs may be forced to reside away from their homes for many years, which not only robs them of the right to pursue a decent life but may also place them in a position where they became politically marginalised. In Georgia, while the internally displaced are able to vote in presidential elections, they are not able to vote for their local parliamentary and municipal representatives - that is, for those who could most directly help improve their conditions. [More information]

According to Young: "The reality of the circumstances faced by IDPs may thus practically be little different from that of refugees who cross international boundaries (and indeed some critics contend that they should not be distinguished), but while the latter may use their status to apply for resettlement in a third country, the former frequently do not always have that opportunity. And this raises the further problem of the efforts of the international community to encourage IDPs to remain in their country of origin when by so doing they may eliminate or reduce their prospects of resettlement in a third country."

"A related difficulty is when (usually at the instigation of the international community) IDPs are repatriated to their original homes, but their security cannot be guaranteed. An example of this was in Bosnia, where displaced Muslims were returned to their homes in largely Christian-inhabited Croatia, only to live under conditions of virtual terror, and the international community was in no position to protect them. In such circumstances, ensuring the return of these peoples would appear a doubtful moral victory."

"In northern Uganda, IDPs fearful of the Lord's Resistance Army have been crowded into protected villages, where hygienic conditions are poor, and the IDPs sometimes appear to be even more vulnerable to rebel attacks. Once again, a genuine concern to rectify the problems of IDPs can only be accomplished in the political realm and that remains problematic."


Because of the number and varying responsibilities of the institutions that take up the concerns of the internally displaced they will be challenged to act in a concerted manner to resolve the political problems of the IDPs, and in addition there is a major role to be played in the only slightly less contentious area of advocacy. As Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng pointed out in their book, "The Forsaken People", "UN personnel acted as if the most, and sometimes the only, essential undertaking was the delivery of relief goods."

Providing basic necessities is critical, but does not usually raise political concerns, whereas direct engagement in protection and advocacy on behalf of the IDPs frequently does raise the political temperature. UN agencies that largely perceive their roles in operational terms may well feel discomfort when entering the political realm, but, as the case of the Rwandan IDPs demonstrated, what was most needed was not food, but forceful advocacy and on-the-ground protection.

According to Young, timidity may be the greatest concern here, but, as the GPs gain ever-greater legitimacy, they become a most valued instrument from which to launch appeals, carry out educational programming, and directly challenge offending governments.

Do IDPs need a lead agency?

Not always clear is the issue of which agencies in the UN network have responsibilities towards IDPs and their rights. As a result, according to David Korn in his book, "Exodus within Borders", "Selectivity has been a major shortcoming of the UN humanitarian response system" to IDPs. Because of such problems former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke argued that dispersal of responsibility was a major weakness of the present regime, and forcefully advocated in favour of the UNHCR assuming the lead role.

His advocacy speech to the Security Council in January 2000 was based on a visit to Angola, where he found international neglect of IDPs, poor coordination, and the refusal of some organisations to provide protection. Although there is still no agreement on the proposals made by Holbrooke, they have stimulated expressions of support, debate, advocacy for organisations other than UNHCR to assume the responsibility of lead agency, rejection of the concept of a lead agency, and efforts by OCHA to provide more effective coordination and give more attention to the protection of IDPs.

Whereas the UNHCR with its clearly related long experience with refugees would seem a realistic candidate for the role of global lead agency, Young points out that it has not always been sympathetic to the proposal, and that some think that it involves a mandate spread that would weaken its capacity. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, during a seminar organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 2, 2000 was quoted as questioning whether there was political support for the proposal [see :].

Others have challenged the entire idea of a lead agency dominating a particular sphere that clearly involves a number of agencies. Yet others, such as Shep Lowman of Refugees International, argued that, given the primacy of concerns of the human rights of IDPs, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and not the UNHCR, be appointed the lead agency. Then there have been those who have proposed that the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF - because of its focus on women and children, decentralised organisation, and prestige - to be the right candidate for the job.

Meanwhile, according to participants at the Carnegie Endowment seminar there are at least three major obstacles to the formation of any lead agency responsible for IDPs: first, a lack of finances, second, a lack of expertise, and lastly, a forceful engagement by such an agency would again raise concerns about national sovereignty.

Another and related problem is that of coordination between the involved agencies. The approach now instituted to deal with this problem involves the collaborative engagement of a number of UN agencies working through the OCHA-hosted IDP Unit in Geneva.

Development and internal displacement

While the GPs are clearly concerned with people who have been displaced as a result of natural or political catastrophes, some scholars have argued that the very dynamics of what is considered development sometimes displaces people.

Labelled development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR), Prof Anthony Oliver-Smith challenges both development theories hailing a triumphant globalisation, and the existing discourse on, and understanding of, IDPs. Oliver-Smith maintains that this phenomenon is extremely widespread and, largely unrecognised, disproportionately affects ethnic and racial minorities, and "a significant percentage of those who face removal, whatever the cause, frequently come from the most disadvantaged sectors of society".

This approach, which is being pursued by a growing number of social scientists, attempts to understand displacement which, for example, is the product of the oil industry in Nigeria and Sudan, construction of the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe and the Tucurui Dam in Brazil, mining schemes in the Philippines, and tourism projects in Mexico. In most of these cases, state support for the projects was critical, opposition movements developed and sometimes took violent forms, and internal displacement was the result.

According to Young: "The UN agencies directly concerned with IDPs have not as yet taken on board such an understanding, but, conceptually, Oliver-Smith and others hold that displacement which is a product of development is not easily distinguished from displacement resulting directly from civil wars and the like."

"In the case of Sudan, for example, there has been widespread displacement in the western Upper Nile region as the government attempts to secure the area for expansion of the oil industry. The international community responds to the people displaced in this way as being a product of the country's civil war, but others might see their problem as a result of development."

Young argues that the response of the international community might be the same, but recognising development, albeit an elite-driven development that pays little heed to the interests of local residents, as a cause of displacement would considerably expand the numbers of officially acknowledged IDPs. This in turn could again expect to raise the concern of states with protecting their sovereignty, and might cause anxieties among UN agencies unwilling or unable to take on added responsibilities.

IDPs and cash flow

Not least of the problems facing IDPs, and particularly those in Africa, where the majority are to be found, has been the reduced availability of funding in the post-Cold War era. The reduced aid flows are generally associated with the continent's declining strategic significance, economic marginalisation, and donors' frustration with Africa. But in cases like Angola (which ranks along with Sudan as having the largest number of IDPs in the world), OCHA in a statement issued on 22 May 2001 attributed the unwillingness of donors to respond to its appeals to the failure of the resource-rich governments to make more of their own funds available.

And finally

The phenomenon of IDPs is gaining the attention of the academic and aid communities, and the GPs will assume a central stage in that consideration. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in cooperation with the Global IDP Project, is to convene a conference on 7 and 8 February 2003 in Trondheim, Norway to "identify the state-of-the-art and display the diversity of IDP-related research". [Further information]

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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