For those forced from their homes, the first response of most is to seek places of safety close to their former homes, towns or cities. They cling to the hope of return and that normal life will resume, that they can pick up the pieces of shattered lives, homes and businesses and begin to rebuild. Some find assistance in camps for internally displaced persons while many more rely on the kindness and generosity of friends, family or strangers. While a lucky minority may find that return is possible, for all of those displaced the experience is highly traumatic and places them among the world’s most vulnerable people.
Many of those who cross international borders as refugees or migrants were first displaced within their own countries.
Population of internally displaced peoples appears much bigger than the population of refugees, but are often without any effective protection or assistance. They are protected by general human right conventions, but without any international legal instrument designed to protect them. Under international law, internally displaced peoples have not crossed international borders and are the responsibility of their government. Unfortunately, very often the same government is the cause of the displacement.
Although the problem of internally displaced people is not a new one, a concerted international focus on solutions has come about only within the last decade. One catalysing event occurred on April 5, 1991, when the UN Security Council’s Resolution 688 demanded that Iraq “allow immediate access to international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq.” At its peak, the aid effort serving internally displaced Kurds in northern Iraq involved 30 bilateral donors, 50 international NGOs, several UN agencies (including UNHCR), 20,000 personnel, and more than 200 aircraft. UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar felt compelled to announce, “We are clearly witnessing what is probably an irresistible shift in public attitudes towards the belief that the defence of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents.”
In December 1991, the General Assembly created the position of Emergency Relief Coordinator, affirming that humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters and other emergencies was a matter of international import. In 1992, as noted above, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Francis M. Deng as his Representative on Internally Displaced Persons with authorisation to conduct fact-finding missions, establish dialogue with governments, coordinate with humanitarian and human rights groups, make proposals for legal and institutional protection, and publish reports for action by the UN Commission on Human Rights, the General Assembly, and international organisations.
Prior to Deng’s appointment, in February 1992, the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a report on IDPs in which it defined internally displaced persons as “Persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country.” In the years of debate and discussion that followed, most of the commentators tended to agree that this definition was too limiting. If the term only referred to those who fled “suddenly or unexpectedly” and “in large numbers,” then smaller numbers would be excluded as would those displaced in more gradual, deliberate circumstances. Similarly, some argued that IDPs were not always “forced to flee,” but often were obliged to leave their homes and property, either as a result of a government order or in the face of an impending disturbance.
In 1998, Deng presented a revised definition of IDPs to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which unanimously adopted a resolution taking note of the Guiding Principles. In addition, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), comprising the heads of the major international relief and development agencies, welcomed the Guiding Principles and encouraged its member agencies to share them with their Executive Boards and staff and to apply them when working with internally displaced populations.
The Guiding Principles define internally displaced persons 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 (emphasis added) as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters and who have not crossed an internationally-recognised State border.” Walter Kälin, one of the international legal advisers who helped to develop the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, observed that while the definition of IDPs gives examples of how internal displacement may occur, the words “in particular” indicate “that the listed examples are not exhaustive.”
Indeed, Principle 6 of the Guiding Principles states that
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.
2. The prohibition of arbitrary displacement includes displacement:
a) when it is based on policies of apartheid, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or similar practices aimed at or resulting in alteration of the ethnic, religious, or racial composition of the affected population;
b) in situations of armed conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand;
c) in cases of large-scale development projects that are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests [emphasis added];
d) in cases of disasters, unless the safety and health of those affected requires their evacuation; and
e) when it is used as a collective punishment.
Principle 9 of the Guiding Principles, moreover, provides that “States are under a particular obligation to protect against the displacement of indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists, and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to the land.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “Internally displaced people have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home”. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) defines 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 generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border”.
One of the biggest differences between IDPs and refugees is that the latter crosses from his/her country to international borders for safety and security.
Walter Kälin has underscored the difference between refugees and IDPs. The Guiding Principles, he emphasised, seek to highlight the descriptive and non-legal nature of the term ‘internally displaced persons.’ Internally displaced persons need not and cannot be granted a special legal status comparable to refugee status. In international law, refugees are granted a special legal status because they have lost the protection of their own country and, therefore, are in need of international protection not necessary for those who do not cross international borders. Internally displaced persons do not need such a substitute protection. Rather as human beings who are in a situation of vulnerability they are entitled to the enjoyment of all relevant guarantees of human rights and humanitarian law, including those that are of special importance to them.
As Kälin notes, norms of human rights law and humanitarian law prohibit the forced movement of persons while permitting certain exceptions. Article 12(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose one’s residence “shall not be subject to any restrictions except those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” Article 49, Geneva Convention IV states that forced migration is allowed, on an exceptional basis, if the security of the population or military imperatives so demand.
Internally displaced persons, under the definition of the Guiding Principles, are not simply “internal refugees,” differing only from their international counterparts by a fluke of geography. IDPs, as above noted, comprise a broader classification of person, which includes those who generally would be considered refugees if they crossed an international border but also those—and this includes, in particular, people displaced by natural disaster or arbitrarily by large-scale development projects∗—who generally would not. The nature of their displacement puts IDPs and refugees alike in situations of vulnerability and entitles each population to the enjoyment of all relevant guarantees of human rights and humanitarian law. The specific laws that apply, however, are not always the same.
Sometimes referred to as ‘internal refugees’, these people are in similar need of protection and assistance as refugees but do not have the same legal and institutional support as those who have managed to cross an international border. There is no specifically-mandated body to provide assistance to IDPs, as there is with refugees. Although they are guaranteed certain basic rights under international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions), ensuring these rights are secured is often the responsibility of authorities which were responsible for their displacement in the first place, or ones that are unable or unwilling to do so. The number of IDPs around the world is estimated to have risen from 1.2 million in 1982 to 14 million in 1986. However, it is likely that earlier estimates are woefully low, as little systematic counting was being conducted at the time. Estimates on numbers of IDPs continue to be controversial, due to debate over definitions, and to methodological and practical problems in counting.