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Internally Displaced Persons: UNHCR's Perspective

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 23 October 1995
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Internally Displaced Persons: UNHCR's Perspective, 23 October 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b31cc4.html [accessed 18 December 2014]
Comments A paper prepared by UNHCR for the Symposium on Internally Displaced Persons (Chavannes-de-Bogis, 23-25 October 1995).

I. Introduction

UNHCR's concern with the internally displaced stems from a recognition that the problems of internal displacement and of refugees are manifestations of the same phenomenon of coerced displacement. As ICRC looks upon the internally displaced as civilians facing the inhumane consequences of armed conflict, UNHCR considers the same issues from the vantage point of dealing with the adverse human consequences of population displacement. It has become commonplace to observe that, not only do refugee flows and internal displacement often have the same causes, but they also entail comparable hardship for the groups and individuals concerned.

As a point of history, it may be worthwhile recalling that the "refugee question", in its broadest sense, has provided the framework for the emergence of the internal displacement issue on the agenda of the international community in recent years. This development owes much to the advocacy efforts of NGOs known and respected for their "refugee" work, including the Friends World Committee for Consultation, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Refugee Policy Group. These groups, stressing the injustice of the lack of international protection for large numbers of people in refugee-like situations, are clearly influenced by their experience with refugees.

This trend has, in turn, influenced the U.N.'s perspective on the subject. ECOSOC and Commission on Human Rights initiatives, in 1990 and 1991 respectively, which led to the Cuenod report[1] and the analytical report of the Secretary-General[2], took place in the "broader context [of] the evolution of the refugee problem in recent years"[3]. The first comprehensive study prepared by Dr. Francis Deng in January 1993 stated that "internally displaced persons have much in common with refugees" and that, as a consequence, "within the United Nations system, the role of UNHCR is perhaps the most pertinent to the needs of the internally displaced"[4].

While internally displaced persons have much in common with refugees, as Dr.Deng himself pointed out further in the same study, the crossing of an international border, in the case of refugees, makes a crucial distinction, both for the definition of the applicable legal standards and for the roles and mandates of international organizations. From a strictly legal point of view, it can probably be argued that it is this very element - the crossing of a border - which, by internationalizing the problem of displacement, justifies the existence of a distinct body of law relating to the status and treatment of people compelled to flee.

II. The Basis of UNHCR's Involvement With Internally Displaced Persons

UNHCR has often warned against conceptual amalgamations and institutional "short-cuts" which ignore the fundamental differences between the two sets of issues. At the same time, the importance of addressing the problems of the internally displaced persons has become increasingly apparent in the light of UNHCR's focus on the prevention and solution of refugee problems.

In the past, and still to a large extent today, UNHCR's involvement with the internally displaced has usually been in the context of the voluntary repatriation of refugees, where return movements and rehabilitation programmes have included both returning returning refugees and displaced persons in circumstances where it was neither reasonable nor feasible to treat the two categories differently. UNHCR programmes in southern Sudan as early as in 1972, in Ethiopia in 1991, and in Tajikistan today provide illustrations of this "cross-category" approach.

The search for solutions to refugee problems - which is, alongside international protection, at the heart of UNHCR's mandate - must start, however, upstream from the stage at which disaster has broken out and voluntary repatriation is pursued. Preventing internal displacement by removing the factors that cause people to flee their homes will also remove the immediate cause of refugee flows. The prevention focus of UNHCR's message signals that there are clear advantages in adopting a global approach to situations of coerced displacement, actual or potential.

UNHCR has, therefore, increasingly considered activities on behalf of the internally displaced persons to be indispensable components of an overall strategy of prevention and solutions. In Sri Lanka, Georgia, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Horn and Central Africa, Mozambique and El Salvador, to cite some recent and current examples, the link between internal and external displacement is obvious and the need to address the internal situation, in order to satisfactorily resolve the external refugee problem, seems equally clear.

It is this "link" criterion which UNHCR used in order to develop, as a first step, internal guidelines governing the Office's involvement in situations of internal displacement. These guidelines, which were issued in April 1993, identified a number of scenarios in which UNHCR should give favourable consideration to assuming primary responsibility for international action on behalf of the internally displaced. Such situations include those where:

(a)        internally displaced populations are present in or returning to the same areas as repatriating refugees, or areas to which refugees are expected to return;

(b)        refugees and displaced persons in similar circumstances are present and in need of humanitarian assistance and/or protection in the same area of a country of asylum;

(c)        the same causes have produced both internal displacement and refugee flows and there are operational or humanitarian advantages in addressing the problem within a single operation, including, e.g., a "cross-border" component; or

(d)        there is a potential for cross-border movement, and the provision of humanitarian assistance and/or protection to internally displaced persons may enable them to remain in safety in their own country.

The most recent General Assembly resolutions concerning UNHCR have confirmed in essence the "link" criterion, by supporting the High Commissioner's efforts to

(..) provide humanitarian assistance and protection to persons displaced within their own country in situations calling for the Office's particular expertise, particularly where such efforts could contribute to the prevention or solution of refugee problems [5] (emphasis added).

The implication of these parameters for involvement, largely confirmed by UNHCR's practice, is that the Office's concern in respect of situations of internal displacement is ancillary to its primary concern for refugees and/or returnees. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that UNHCR often has only an incomplete grasp of the reality of internal displacement in a particular country. In many of the situations described above, the operational focus is not on a group of persons, but rather on a geographical area within which the beneficiary group may be "mixed" - more often than not, the area of origin and/or return of refugees. Given this "situational" approach, attempts at defining an "internally displaced person of concern to UNHCR" have been limited.

General Assembly resolution 48/116, partly quoted above, is actually far more explicit concerning the High Commissioner's activities on behalf of the internally displaced, including the conditions attached to such activities. It sets out, in particular, two mandatory requirements for UNHCR action: a specific request from the Secretary-General or a competent principal organ of the United Nations, and the consent of the concerned State.

The High Commissioner's mandate to undertake activities on behalf of the internally displaced is, thus, conditional. It is also, in principle, discretionary. In addition to the requirements mentioned by the General Assembly, the Executive Committee has called for due regard to be paid to the availability of sufficient resources [6], which must be understood to include not only funds but also institutional capacity and the possibility of deploying sufficient qualified staff. The Executive Committee has also reiterated thatUNHCR's activities in the field of prevention must be complementary to its international protection responsibilities and consistent with the principles of international human rights and humanitarian law, and that the institution of asylum must not in any way be undermined [7].

III. Is Coverage Adequate?

The conditions and criteria applicable to UNHCR are not exclusive; there frequently are situations where the mandates of other organizations could overlap with UNHCR's, and it must be decided which agency will assume the lead role. In situations of armed conflict which include a strong link to refugee problems, such as actual or potential cross-border movement, UNHCR will have to reach agreement with ICRC on the most effective way to share the task of assisting and protecting the internally displaced. The magnitude of humanitarian tasks in conflict areas is such that regular consultation and coordination between UNHCR and ICRC usually result in complementary action and fruitful collaboration. It should be recalled that ICRC and UNHCR are the only international organizations to combine humanitarian assistance and protection mandates in this area.

Generally, since no one agency has a global mandate for the internally displaced, arriving at an appropriate division of labour among the organizations concerned is of considerable importance for meeting their needs for humanitarian assistance, protection and solutions. The roles of the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee are of course central to the coordination of humanitarian assistance and the appropriate allocation of responsibilities. Because the needs of the internally displaced include protection as well as humanitarian assistance, it is essential that agencies with competence in the field of human rights are an integral part of any international effort to meet those needs.

The human rights machinery of the U.N. is, however, only starting to develop an operational capacity, and one which relies more on monitoring and reporting than on seeking immediate redress through intervention with the authorities or the parties in conflict. It is UNHCR's view, based on its experience with refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, that protection as an activity does not lend itself to coordination as in the case of assistance. In every situation of internal displacement it is crucial that leadership on protection matters be clearly established from the outset of the operation. Failure to do so, or confusion between relief and protection functions, may lead to disaster, as tragically illustrated by recent events in Rwanda.

There are, sadly, many more gaps than there are situations of overlap in the international community's coverage of the needs of internally displaced persons. Through effective information-sharing and concertation mechanisms, including the Task Force established by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee a few months ago, the international community should now focus on addressing the most pressing among those humanitarian emergencies that have "fallen in the cracks" of the international response system. UNHCR will continue to advocate a strong operational focus for the Task Force, in order to concentrate its efforts on gradually but systematically expanding international coverage of situations of internal displacement, starting with those in which the needs for relief and protection are most urgent.

The restoration of peace and the protection of human rights, which are the ultimate way to provide truly effective protection to the internally displaced, are primarily the responsibility of governments. It is important to recognize that the forms of protection and humanitarian assistance that can be provided by UNHCR, with the consent of the national authorities, to persons within their own country must serve principally to promote or reinforce national protection, which must be provided by those authorities. While they can play a supportive role and help bridge gaps during emergencies, UNHCR and other international organizations obviously cannot substitute for governments in the protection of their own citizens.

IV. Legal Standards and Their Development

The absence of a single body of principles and norms, equivalent to international refugee law, has been mentioned by some as a deficiency in the present legal situation. It should be noted, however, that refugees have been granted a particular status because they are foreigners who do not enjoy the protection of any government. Internally displaced persons, as nationals within their own country, require above all respect for, and enforcement by the authorities of, their rights as full citizens, including the right to freedom of movement and residence, whether in the place from which they were displaced or elsewhere. A specific legal status different from their fellow citizens would not necessarily be to their advantage.

On the other hand, codification of legal protections against displacement as well as remedies and protections for persons who have suffered displacement could be of value. UNHCR has contributed to, and will continue to support, the initiative of the Representative of the Secretary-General for the compilation of existing rules and norms, as well as the drafting of a code of conduct and the possible preparation of an international declaration, if agreed.

Any new declaration or other instrument should address the increased vulnerability deriving from coerced displacement and the need for this displacement to come to an end as a matter of human rights. The right for victims of displacement, if they so wish, to return to their homes, must be strongly affirmed. Ideally, according to some commentators, a new declaration should consider protection mechanisms and standards for both the externally and the internally displaced, not in opposition but in a continuum of rights and obligations. This comprehensive treatment of the matter would not in any way substitute existing legal categories; it would, instead, reinforce the human rights dimension into which concern for refugees and for internally displaced persons converge, at the triple level of causes, protection and solutions. It would significantly contribute to closing the more glaring lacunae in the international legal system for the protection of victims of coerced displacement - some of which belong in the refugee law area, as well as with regard to internally displaced persons.

On a related score, UNHCR praises the comprehensive reading of the right to freedom of movement, including the right of all persons to remain in peace in their homes and their places of residence, provided by the Turku Abo Declaration [8], as submitted to the Commission on Human Rights. If our objective is to close gaps in the legal protection of victims of conflict, persecution and violence, we must exploit the very real potential for convergence which exists between standard-setting efforts on the human rights aspects of coerced displacement and those minimum non-derogable humanitarian standards applicable in all situations.

V. Practical Protection Put to a Test

While the further development of international legal norms would be welcome, the most serious problems with respect to the protection of persons who are either displaced or threatened with displacement in their own country generally result not from an absence of legal norms, but from the failure of the parties concerned to respect and enforce those norms. Any effective legal system must include both standards of conduct and some mechanism for ensuring their observance or enforcement. The existing international mechanisms for ensuring observance of human rights principles and of humanitarian law are clearly not fully adequate to this task.

Humanitarian assistance and protection for the internally displaced, as international protection for refugees, require the active cooperation of States directly concerned. Similarly, international presence and humanitarian access to the displaced populations are indispensable. Unlike refugee protection, however, there exists no conventional or statutory framework calling upon the States concerned to cooperate with, or to consent to international presence and action except, in the case of armed conflict, for ICRC. Experience in situations such as Chechnya has demonstrated that State consent to a protection role for international agencies on behalf of internally displaced persons cannot be taken for granted.

As noted above, the relevant General Assembly resolutions make UNHCR's activities on behalf of the internally displaced conditional upon the consent of the concerned authorities. This requirement alone cannot, however, guarantee that all parties agree with the objectives and modalities of the Office's involvement. This must be construed to mean not only presence on the ground, but the mission's terms of reference, more particularly in the protection area. Wherever feasible, early formal agreement should also be arrived at regarding UNHCR's basic responsibility beyond which UNHCR will consider itself at liberty to reconsider its overall involvement.

Firm legal standing, as far as possible supported by formal agreements with the authorities or parties to the conflict, is crucial to humanitarian access to the internally displaced. The ability to successfully negotiate such agreements is, however, contingent upon a number of factors independent from legal mandates. Prominent among those is an agency's credibility as a neutral and impartial actor whose exclusive motives are the relief of suffering and the protection of civilians on all sides of a conflict. For an organization operating under U.N. auspices, the image of the U.N. as a whole in a particular operation is bound to influence the quality and level of consent that it will be able to enjoy for carrying out its humanitarian duties. It is with this concern in mind that UNHCR has called for a clearer delineation than is currently the case between the political, military and humanitarian objectives of the U.N. in complex emergencies. In order to be effective, humanitarian action should be part of a comprehensive response which integrates political, security, human rights and socio-economic issues. However, while pressure is constantly mounting on humanitarian organizations to deliver, humanitarian action may be curtailed - or even undermined - by the lack of clear political objectives and strategy to resolve the underlying conflict.


[1] Report on refugees, displaced persons and returnees (E/1991/109/Add.1) prepared by Mr.Jacques Cuenod and submitted to ECOSOC at its second regular session of 1991.

[2] E/CN.4/1992/23 of 14 February 1992.

[3] Ibid., para.4

[4] E/CN.4/1993/35 of 21 January 1993, pp 18 and 25, respectively.

[5] General Assembly resolution A/RES/48/116 of 20 December 1993, para.12.

[6] Conclusion No.71 (XLIV) adopted by the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme at its 44th session in 1993, para. (s).

[7] Ibid., para.(u). See also Conclusion 75 (XLV) of 1994, para. (l).

[8] E/CN.4/1995/116 of 31 January 1995

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