'Internally displaced persons' - the category
Recognition of internal displacement emerged gradually through the late 1980s and became prominent on the international agenda in the 1990s. The chief reasons for this attention were the growing number of conflicts causing internal displacement after the end of the Cold War and an increasingly strict international migration regime. The phenomenon of internal displacement, however, is not new. According to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (2003) the Greek government argued to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1949 that people displaced internally by war should have the same access to international aid as refugees, even if they did not need international protection. India and Pakistan repeated this argument after partition.
Although the issue of internal displacement has gained international prominence during the last fifteen years, a single definition of the term remains to be agreed upon. Questions of who should be covered by the category whether it is a useful one and the consequences of applying it in humanitarian interventions are widely debated. The most commonly applied definition is the one coined by the former UN Secretary-General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis Deng, and used in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GP):
Internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or 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 human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border.(OCHA 1999:6)
- OCHA http://ochaonline.un.org/
- ReliefWeb, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement http://www.reliefweb.int/ocha_ol/pub/idp_gp/idp.html
IDPs and refugees
The main difference between IDPs and refugees is that the internally displaced remain within the borders of their own country. Refugee status entitles individuals to certain rights and international protection, while being an IDP is not a legal status because IDPs are still under the jurisdiction of their own government and may not claim any rights additional to those shared by their compatriots (Hathaway 1991, Vincent 2000). However, IDPs are often in need of special protection, not least because the government responsible for protecting them is sometimes unwilling or unable to do so, or may itself be the cause of displacement.
Despite the differences in legal status and of entitlement to aid from the international humanitarian community, the causes of displacement and the experience of being displaced are often similar for both IDPs and refugees. Much like refugees, IDPs often feel like strangers in their place of refuge, where the local population may be from a different ethnic and/or religious group and/or may speak another language. Consequently, IDPs may not feel welcomed, despite sharing the same citizenship as the host population.
There has been some debate surrounding whether IDPs and refugees should be grouped as a single category, and consequently whether the challenges caused by them should be handled by the same institution(s). This argument was first raised in the pages of 1998 and 1999 editions of Forced Migration Review (FMR) (see Barutciski 1998 and 1999, Bennett 1999, Kingsley-Nyinah 1999, Rutinwa 1999, Vincent 1999). Barutciski (1998) argued that the attempts by some human rights advocates to extend the protection of refugees to the internally displaced may be counter-productive, as it would be detrimental to the traditional asylum option and could possibly increase containment. The discussion was revitalised in 2001, when the then US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, following a visit to Angola, argued that the bureaucratic distinction between refugees and IDPs was negatively affecting the lives of millions of IDPs (Borton et al. 2005, Holbrooke 2000, OCHA 2003).
- Barutciski, Michael. 1998. Tensions between the refugee concept and the IDP debate. Forced Migration Review 3: 11-14.
- Barutciski, Michael. 1999. Questioning the tensions between the refugee and IDP concepts: a rebuttal. Forced Migration Review 4: 35.
- Bennett, Jon. 1999. Rights and Borders, Forced Migration Review 4: 33.
- Bonoan, R. 2003 Cessation of Refugee Status: A Guide for Determining When Internal Displacement Ends? Forced Migration Review 17: 8-9, May 2003.
- Kingsley-Nyinah, Michael 1999. What may be borrowed; what is new? Forced Migration Review 4: 32-33.
- Rutinwa, Bonaventure. 1999. How tense is the tension between the refugee concept and the IDP Debate? Forced Migration Review 4: 29-31.
- Vincent, Marc. 2000. IDPs rights and status. Forced Migration Review 8: 29-30.
Internally displaced and other vulnerable groups on the ground
The discussions in FMR not only addressed the differences between refugees and IDPs, but also the usefulness and viability of the IDP category. It may be possible to identify two main views or schools in this debate. On one side of the debate are the UN and the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement (formerly the Brookings-SAIS project) including such commentators as Dr. Francis M. Deng, Roberta Cohen and Erin Mooney and Professor Walter Kälin (since September 2004 the UN Secretary-General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons). They have been advocates for a separate humanitarian category of IDPs, an argument that continues to dominate the tone of most research into IDPs. The opposing view is represented by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Based on humanitarian principles and the realities of the field, the ICRC is critical of working with internal displacement as a separate humanitarian category, and on the ground the ICRC does not separate between IDPs and other civilians affected by conflict.
In situations of armed conflict and internal disturbances the ICRC will in fact always try to give priority to those with the most urgent needs. Because of their precarious situation, displaced persons are frequently, although not exclusively, among the main beneficiaries of its work. Moreover, the host populations, which are sometimes minority groups or resident populations that have been unable to move away, often have to face a situation that is just as difficult, if not worse. Instead of developing programmes tailored to the needs of the displaced persons, it will then be necessary to adopt an overall approach and define the appropriate operational modes according to the context .(Contat Hickel 2001:699)
The ICRC approach is supported by the findings of a collaborative evaluation of donor support to IDPs (Borton et al. 2005), which reported strong objections to the identification of IDPs as a separate category from among all actual and potential vulnerable groups. A more fundamental source of objection reported in the evaluation was the belief that the separate identification of IDPs is at odds with the humanitarian principle that assistance should be determined by needs alone.