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Dealing with IDPs

Dealing with IDPs

Institutional developments

Unlike refugees, IDPs do not benefit from a specific international regime exclusively devoted to ensuring their protection and assistance. Instead, they are subject to the many actors involved in providing assistance, protection, and development aid in a conflict situation , including UN agencies, human rights organisations, and international and local NGOs.

During the 1980s, assistance to IDPs was generally ad hoc and often controversial in the eyes of host governments. The easing of Cold War tensions opened new possibilities for assistance to the internally displaced, but how such assistance would be delivered remained unclear. The institutional developments that followed during the 1990s were driven by some major displacement crises. Operation Provide Comfort in Northern Iraq was a turning point for international activism and the debacles of the Somalia and Balkan wars highlighted the need for progress in developing international mechanisms for the protection of the internally displaced (OCHA 2003). Much of the early momentum behind the push for greater international attention to the needs of the internally displaced was generated by the advocacy efforts of the NGO community in the late 1980s and early 1990s (OCHA 2003) - a sector which had already proved to be among the most important actors assisting IDPs.

In 1992, as a result of a concerted NGO advocacy campaign (Weiss 2003), and at the request of the Commission on Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General appointed Dr. Francis M. Deng as Special Representative on IDPs,. Early in his mandate he suggested three alternative institutional arrangements for dealing with the internally displaced (Deng 2000, Mooney 2003a):

the creation of a new agency for IDPs;

the assignation of responsibility for IDPs to and existing agency (a lead agency); or

the development of a collaborative approach among the different relevant agencies coordinated by a central mechanism.

The political and financial infeasibility of the first option put its realisation into doubt. For the second option, it was suggested that the UNHCR should take up the responsibility given its expertise in providing protection to displaced populations, including IDPs. However, it was argued that the existing organisation did not have the capacity to take up responsibility for a group of people who outnumbered the global refugee population by several million. The third option has thus become the preferred one in the international community, where many argue it is the best solution because it allows for a comprehensive and holistic response, involving various agencies and spanning all phases of displacement (Krill 2001, Mooney 2003a, Weiss 2003). In the same year that Deng tabled his three options, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee for Internal Displacement was established and in 1997 an Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) was appointed as the focal point within the UN for issues pertaining to the internally displaced and was assigned responsibility for coordinating UN actions on their behalf (OCHA 2003).

Although the collaborative approach has been the preferred one among the international community, there are still a number of critical voices in the ongoing debate over the management of IDPs. In 2000, for instance, Ambassador Holbrooke suggested removing the bureaucratic distinction between IDPs and refugees. His statements spurred a number of responses and temporarily raised the profile of a lead agency model. The discussion that followed lead to the formation of the Senior-Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement, which was charged with proposing ways of improving the international response to IDP needs. In 2001, the Senior Network recommended the creation of a non-operational IDP office within OCHA, with the primary aim of promoting an improved inter-agency response to displacement situations and supporting the ERC in his role as coordinator of international responses to IDP needs (Borton et al. 2005). In 2004, the unit was upgraded to a Division.

The collaborative approach is also highly criticised for not working efficiently on the ground, and it is not considered able to adequately address operational issues in the face of the large and financially well-established operational agencies, who do not always recognise its authority and leadership in the area of IDPs. Moreover, where responses do occur they typically focus predominantly or even exclusively on assistance, leaving many internally displaced persons without the protection they need (Mooney 2003a).

The development of the international response
Late 1980s: Internal displacement emerges as an issue on the international agenda
1991: End of the Gulf War and flight of Iraqi Kurds up to Turkish border prompts Operation Provide Comfort which creates a safe zone for IDPs in Iraq.
1992: On request from the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Secretary General appoints Francis Deng as Representative Secretary General (RSG) of Internally Displaced Persons. Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) is established. Sets up internal displacement task force and designates Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) as UN reference point for protection and assistance to IDPs. The UNHCR adopts a working definition of internal displacement enabling it to work directly with IDPs who fall within its original mandate.
1993: RSG issues first annual report and recommends the creation of a new UN agency or modification of the mandate of an existing one (such as the UNHCR) to cater more specifically for the needs of IDPs.
1996: Faced with resistance to the idea of a dedicated/lead UN agency for IDPs, the RSG alters his position and supports the IASCs collaborative approach among UN agencies. Global IDP project established in Geneva by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
1997: UN Secretary General appoints Emergency Relief Coordinator as focal point for IDPs in the UN system.
1998: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights.
1999: Global IDP project launches IDP database at the request of the UN.
2000: Interagency Standing Committee adopts IDP policy. ERC establishes Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement.
2001: Global number of IDPs reaches 25 million and remains largely unchanged for the following years.
2002: Internal Displacement Unit (since 2004 division) created within OCHA.
2004: UN Secretary General appoints Walter Kälin as Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. IASC adopts revised IDP Policy Package to strengthen the Collaborative Response
Sources: IDMC 2005a:11 and Borton et al. 2005 48-49.
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
ReliefWeb, OCHA


Protection must be seen both as a legal and a social issue. Protection may be defined as the challenge of making states and individuals meet their humanitarian responsibilities to protect people in situations of war, and filling in for them as much as possible when they fail to meet these responsibilities (Slim and Eguren 2004). Protection should cover the full range of rights enumerated under international human rights law, including civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights (OCHA 2003). But in situations of internal displacement, although a legal system is in place, protection may not be secured the state which is supposed to protect its citizens is sometimes itself instrumental in the displacement, and internal displacement commonly causes loss of social networks and security which may in turn lead to increased insecurity.

Major developments in the efforts to secure the protection of IDPs have taken place in the humanitarian community. While there is no single legal framework covering the protection needs of IDPs, their rights may be covered by existing frameworks such as the national laws of the country of which the IDPs are citizens, international human rights and humanitarian law, or legal and institutional provisions relating to particular situations of internal displacement (Borton et al. 2005). Additionally, although not directly applicable to IDPs, refugee law is instructive in pointing to the particular types of protection required by persons in refugee-like situations which are not necessarily specifically addressed by human rights or international humanitarian law (Mooney 2003a). For instance an important principle borrowed from refugee law is that of non-refoulment, which provides protection for refugees against forced return to a situation where they would be at risk.

The application of these different bodies of law to the protection of IDPs is complicated (Borton 2005). The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GP) were developed in order to simplify the process and create a normative framework (Mooney 2003a). These bring together in one document the many norms of specific importance to the internally displaced, which were previously diffused among many different instruments and therefore not easily accessible or sufficiently understood. The 30 principles spell out what protection should mean during each phase of internal displacement, and although not a binding document, the GP reflect and are consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law. (Kälin 2000, Mooney 2003a).

The GP have been translated into many languages and widely disseminated. They have even been incorporated into the domestic law of some countries Angola was the first to do so in 2001, and has since been followed by Burundi, Sudan, Uganda and Colombia. However, Borton et al. (2005) identify a considerable gap between the law and its implementation on the ground, and Francis Deng (2000) has emphasised that the GP only serve as morally binding statements. It is hoped that they will eventually attain the status of customary international law (Banerjee et al. 2005).

Assisting and protecting the internally displaced: complex political spaces

In Post-Cold War humanitarianism, agencies have had to deal with a growing number of non-state actors, which can make it difficult to distinguish between civilians and soldiers and introduce new ethical dilemmas (Raper 2003). The humanitarian imperative can also conflict with strategies for addressing the political foundations of forced migration and other symptoms of socio-political crisis (Maley 2003).

Serving the internally displaced is, according to Raper (2003), often more precarious than serving refugees because the conflict is often ongoing, their own government is sometimes the attacker, they are constantly on the move, or armed groups exist within their community. This makes them difficult to reach, and introduces security as an issue for both IDPs and aid workers

Agencies are present on sufferance of the state or of the de facto authorities. It makes a big difference whether or not a peace agreement has already been reached and is being honoured. Fighting may make access impossible, or terrain or meteorological conditions do not allow passage of relief goods, or convoys are looted. Difficulties in gaining access are frequently man-made and intentional. These impediments can lead to disastrous consequences, as events in Somalia, Bosnia, or southern Sudan have shown (Raper 2003:361)

Although by definition the internally displaced do not stay in the conflict zone, they often represent important political symbols and as such do play a crucial role in the conflict and one that can impede the assistance and protection of humanitarian actors. In the case of the South Caucasus, for example, people have been displaced for more than a decade with few prospects of return. However, there is no willingness on the part of the authorities to encourage integration or more sustainable lives for the displaced - instead they would rather that IDPs return in order to reclaim territories. The result of this attitude is that assistance has been relief- and advocacy- oriented rather than focused on long-term development.

ALNAP, Humanitarian Protection, Guidance Booklet (Slim & Eguren, 2004),
ReliefWeb, OCHA
Last updated Aug 17, 2011