Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December 2014, 15:47 GMT

Information Note: UNHCR's Role with Internally Displaced Persons

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 20 November 1998
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Information Note: UNHCR's Role with Internally Displaced Persons, 20 November 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b31b87.html [accessed 17 December 2014]
Comments This note has been superseded by "Internally Displaced Persons: the Role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees" dated 6 March 2000.

Introduction

1.         The purpose of this note is to explain the rationale, mandate and criteria for UNHCR's involvement with internally displaced persons and to provide a brief description of activities which the organisation has undertaken on their behalf in various operations. Although refugees flee their country and the internally displaced remain uprooted within their national borders, the two groups share many common characteristics. Like refugees, many internally displaced persons have been forced to leave their homes because of fear of persecution, war and violence, and are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is mandated under its Statute to provide international protection to refugees and seek permanent solutions to refugee problems, because of the close links between refugees and internally displaced persons, UNHCR has also responded to the problem of internal displacement in many situations.

2.         UNHCR's growing involvement with internally displaced persons has coincided with more focused attention by the international community on the plight of the internally displaced. A number of steps have been or are being taken by the United Nations system to strengthen its response to the problem, including the clarification of organisational roles and responsibilities within the overall framework of inter-agency collaboration and co-operation. By outlining UNHCR's role with respect to the internally displaced, it is hoped that this note will help to further that objective.

Rationale and mandate for UNHCR's involvement

3.         As UNHCR's mission statement puts it, "UNHCR is mandated by the United Nations to lead and co-ordinate international action for the world-wide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems." Successive General Assembly resolutions have endorsed the competence of UNHCR to include not only persons who are outside their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution but also persons who are forced to leave their countries due to armed conflict, foreign occupation, serious public disorder, generalised violence or massive violations of human rights and who are unable or unwilling to return to their countries because of a serious threat to their life, liberty and security of person. An examination of the common needs of the various refugee groups make it clear that coerced movement coupled with the need for protection is the basis of UNHCR's competence. These same features mark many situations of internal displacement and underlie UNHCR's concern for and interest in internally displaced persons.

4.         Recognising that in many situations the plight, the needs and the causes of displacement of internally displaced persons are closely related to those of refugees or returnees and that it is not possible to resolve refugee problems without addressing simultaneously the issue of internal displacement, UNHCR has increasingly undertaken activities on behalf of the internally displaced as part of a comprehensive approach to address coerced population movements.

5.         While UNHCR's Statute makes no specific reference to internally displaced persons, it recognises, in article 9, that the High Commissioner may, in addition to the work with refugees, "engage in such activities....as the General Assembly may determine, within the limits of the resources placed at (her) disposal". This article is the basis on which the U.N. General Assembly has authorised the Secretary-General to call upon UNHCR to undertake humanitarian assistance and protection activities on behalf of the internally displaced, provided certain specific conditions are met.

6.         As far back as 1972 in GA resolution 2958 (XXVII) , the U.N. General Assembly requested the High Commissioner "to continue to participate, at the invitation of the Secretary General, in those humanitarian endeavours of the United Nations for which his Office has particular expertise and experience", and "commended UNHCR for its efficient role in the co-ordination of relief and resettlement operations of refugees and other displaced persons" in the Sudan. In 1974, the Secretary General requested UNHCR to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance to Greek and Turkish Cypriots who were internally displaced. In GA resolution 36/125 of 14 December 1981, the General Assembly reaffirmed the "High Commissioner's leading responsibility in emergency situations regarding refugees and displaced persons of concern to his Office as well as his responsibility in the co-ordination of assistance in those situations".

7.         Subsequently, in December 1993, in the wake of UNHCR's role as lead agency with internally displaced persons in northern Iraq and former Yugoslavia at the request of the UN Secretary General, the General Assembly outlined its authorisation for UNHCR's involvement in more comprehensive terms in resolution 48/116, by expressing "support for the High Commissioner's efforts, on the basis of specific requests from the Secretary General or the competent principal organs of the United Nations, and with the consent of the concerned state, and taking into account the complementarities of the mandates and expertise of other relevant organisations, to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to persons displaced within their own country in specific situations calling for the Office's particular expertise, especially where such efforts could contribute to the prevention or solution of refugee problems."

Criteria for UNHCR's involvement with internally displaced persons

8.         UNHCR has interpreted the General Assembly resolutions, and in particular resolution 48/116, as providing the Organisation with a mandate to address the challenges of internal displacement in a flexible manner. Based on these resolutions, and on its operational experience UNHCR developed internal policy directives in 1993 and 1997, defining the criteria for involvement in specific operations as follows:

-           specific request or endorsement from the Secretary General or the competent principal organs of the United Nations

-           consent of the concerned state or other relevant entity

-           relevance of UNHCR's expertise and experience in protection, assistance and solution-oriented activities

-           availability of adequate resources

-           access to the affected population

-           ability of UNHCR to maintain its institutional independence as a non-political and humanitarian organisation, and to intervene directly with the Governments and parties concerned through its field presence.

9.         The criteria and considerations outlined above do not automatically trigger UNHCR's involvement but reflect factors that need to be taken into account in deciding whether or not a situation is appropriate for UNHCR's involvement. The relative importance given to each criterion will vary with particular situations and in the light of all other considerations. In most situations, the availability of funds is a critical factor in UNHCR's decision to undertake or extend activities on behalf of the internally displaced.

10.       As a refugee organisation, an over-arching consideration affecting UNHCR's involvement is the need to ensure that its activities on behalf of the internally displaced do not, in any way, jeopardise the protection of refugees, who remain the primary focus of the organisation, or undermine the institution of asylum, including the right of the internally displaced to seek asylum if they so wish. The right of the internally displaced to seek asylum has been underscored by UN General Assembly resolution 50/152 of 1996.

Nature of UNHCR's activities

11.        UNHCR's involvement with the internally displaced is usually in operations where the problems of internally displaced people are closely linked to those of refugees or returnees: when a situation of displacement straddles a border, with refugees in a country of asylum, and internally displaced in the country of origin, as in Kosovo; or when former refugees return to their country but not to their place of origin, and become de facto internally displaced persons, as in Sri Lanka; or when the internally displaced are mixed with returnee populations or in potential areas of return of refugees, as in the Horn of Africa.

12.       By virtue of its unique mandate and its global operations on behalf of refugees, UNHCR has acquired protection and solution-oriented skills and an operational capacity which can be put to effective use in certain situations of internal displacement. While the nature of UNHCR's involvement is related generally to the organisation's expertise and experience in the area of protection and solutions, the particular activities undertaken by UNHCR vary according to the specific situation and the needs of the persons concerned, ranging from reintegration assistance in Ethiopia and Somalia, to capacity building and the promotion and monitoring of human rights in Tajikistan, to co-ordinating protection and humanitarian assistance in former Yugoslavia.

13.       The voluntary repatriation of refugees and their reintegration in the country of origin, so as to ensure the durability of return, are important functions of UNHCR. Assisting internally displaced as part of a reintegration operation for returnees is the most frequent way in which UNHCR becomes involves with internal displacement. Following the General Peace Accord of 1992 in Mozambique, UNHCR assisted both returning refugees and internally displaced persons through community-based projects in its geographic area of operations. Recognising that many of the internally displaced were returning to or present in the same areas from which the refugees had fled and that the overall success of the operation would depend on a comprehensive response to the problem of displacement, UNHCR simultaneously facilitated the reintegration of returning refugees and internally displaced.

14.       Because UNHCR's activities on behalf of the internally displaced in the context of a repatriation operation are usually indivisible from its mandated protection and assistance activities for returning refugees, specific authorisation would not normally be a precondition for the organisation's involvement. In contrast, where the link between an envisaged operation and refugee-related activities is weak, prior request or authorisation from the UN organs or the concerned state is a prerequisite for UNHCR's involvement with internally dispIaced persons, as occurred for instance when UNHCR agreed to assist those displaced by conflict in the Chechen republic of the Russian Federation.

15.       While recognising the difficulties of protecting the internally displaced in their own country, UNHCR nevertheless believes that activities with respect to internally displaced persons should not be limited to the delivery of relief assistance, but should include a protection component. In this context, UNHCR welcomes the protection focus of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, prepared by the Representative of the Secretary General.

16.       To give one example of UNHCR's protection activities for internally displaced, in the case of Sri Lanka, UNHCR initially began by assisting refugees returning from India but when renewed fighting displaced both returnees and others in the local community, UNHCR responded to the request of the Government to address the needs of both groups. Seeking to combine relief assistance with some basic protection, UNHCR established Open Relief Centres (ORCs), where the displaced population could seek temporary shelter from the fighting.

17.       UNHCR's involvement in the former Yugoslavia has highlighted the relevance of specific expertise in the area of protection and solutions, as well as the importance of addressing the plight of all affected population, whether refugees, displaced or besieged. In November 1991, UNHCR was requested by the UN Secretary-General to act as lead agency to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons affected by the conflict in former Yugoslavia. UNHCR's protection role was implicit in the Secretary General's letter, and the Office interpreted its tasks in a broad way, not only providing material relief to the victims of conflict, but also undertaking a wide range of protection functions, such as field visits to monitor the conditions of vulnerable groups, direct intervention with the authorities to address violations, facilitating evacuation in life-threatening situations, and intervening to prevent involuntary and unsafe return of displaced persons. Although UNHCR's ability to protect was limited by the brutal nature of the war, the Office's monitoring and reporting helped to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of civilians.

18.       Following the Dayton Peace Agreement, UNHCR has been given the lead responsibility for return and reintegration of refugees and displaced to their places of origin, expanding its expertise on solutions with respect to the internally displaced. UNHCR has undertaken a number of innovative measures such as inter-entity bus lines and the "Open Cities" initiative to create openings for voluntary return and encourage conditions conducive to safe return. However, the limited numbers of returns of minorities so far emphasise the difficulties inherent in reversing "ethnic cleansing" and the limits of humanitarian action in the absence of political will.

Inter-agency co-operation

19.        The size, scope and multi-faceted nature of internal displacement underline the need for co-operation and co-ordination among various organisations working with the internally displaced. U.N. General Assembly resolutions authorising UNHCR's involvement with the internally displaced have consistently stressed the need to respect complementary mandates and relevant expertise of other international organisations. UNHCR's operational criteria also recognise the importance of acting in concert with national and international actors, including, in particular, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Representative of the Secretary General for Internally Displaced Persons, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNICEF, WFP, other relevant UN agencies and NGOs.

20.       The precise structure of inter-agency co-operation has varied from operation to operation, as has UNHCR's role within that structure. For instance, in the context of former Yugoslavia UNHCR was designated by the UN Secretary General to be the lead agency to co-ordinate the UN's humanitarian response to the internally displaced (on this basis UNHCR continues to lead the international efforts on behalf of IDPs in Kosovo). In contrast in Rwanda, UNHCR's activities on behalf of the internally displaced were undertaken at the request of the Secretary General within the overall framework of the United Nations Rwanda Emergency Operations, co-ordinated by the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

21.       Recognising that issues of internal displacement cannot be addressed by a single agency, increased emphasis is being placed by the U.N. system on co-ordination mechanisms such as the Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and, at the field level, the Resident/Humanitarian Co-ordinators. UNHCR is an active member of the IASC Working Group, the forum for consultation on all internally displaced matters at the headquarters level, and supports measures to improve co-ordination and address gaps. As delivery of protection and assistance will continue to depend on operational agencies, it is important that the objectives and methods of co-ordination support and strengthen the capacity of operational agencies to respond rapidly and effectively to the needs of the internally displaced.

Conclusion

22.        Most internally displaced persons need protection, assistance, and a solution to their plight. The challenges presented by internal displacement, however, arise in a wide variety of contexts, not all of which can be addressed by UNHCR. Nevertheless, UNHCR currently assists some 4.4 million internally displaced persons. While the protection and assistance of refugees will remain UNHCR's primary concern, the Office recognises that the problems of the internally displaced and of refugees are often manifestations of the same phenomenon of coerced displacement. Activities on behalf of the internally displaced should be an indispensable component of an overall strategy of the United Nations to prevent and resolve coerced population movements, whether across borders or within them. UNHCR looks forward to playing its part in collaboration with other UN agencies, and international, national and local actors.

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