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Internally Displaced Peoples

Internally Displaced Peoples

One unifying characteristic of all individuals and groups who are characterized as refugees is their identity as a moving entity and that the aim of their movement is to escape danger. This notion of space becomes crucial when one examines the plight of the internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Like refugees, IDPs are fleeing danger in search of an area in which they will be better protected. They may be threatened by persecution based upon one of the five grounds enshrined in the RC. On the other hand they may be escaping civil war, internal disturbances, and/or generalized violence. They may also be leaving an area due to devastation wrought by natural or man-made disasters, development projects, or government-sponsored relocation schemes. The main differentiating factor between an IDP and a refugee is that an IDP has not crossed an international border. An IDP is not outside the country of his nationality or outside the country of his former habitual residence.

Given that IDPs remain within the territory of the country of their nationality or country of habitual residence, it may be assumed that they will receive assistance and protection from their national government; and that a state will protect the rights and freedoms of all those individuals and groups within its jurisdiction. For a state or an international organization, such as the UNHCR, to enter the territory of another state without invitation, in an attempt to protect individuals therein, is likely to be interpreted by the putative state as a violation of their political and territorial sovereignty.

However, it is no coincidence that often the government in question does not protect them, as they are obliged to do so under international law. Due to their association with a particular group, religion, ethnicity, nationality and so forth, IDPs are often viewed by the State as a threat. Ultimately, the reasons for their displacement are, more often than not, the same reasons that lead to refugee flight.

"Refugee-like situations."

The UNHCR restricts its understanding of IDPs to those in refugee-like situations, where refugee is understood according to the definition enshrined in Article 1A of the RC. However, the 1992 Report of the UN Secretary General identifies IDPs 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.

There are several limitations inherent within this definition. First of all, individuals are not necessarily fleeing suddenly or unexpectedly nor are they necessarily fleeing in large numbers. Likewise, many are not forced to flee per se, but rather are expelled, such as the Bosnian Muslims. Consequently, Francis Deng, UN Special Representative of the UNSG on IDPs, suggests that the term internally displaced be replaced by the term forcibly moved.

As with refugees, there must be a determination of when IDP status ceases to be applicable. Just as no one wants to remain a refugee forever, presumably no one wants to be an IDP forever. That being said, Deng alleges that many IDPs prefer to remain as such rather than seek refugee status, given the increasing difficulties involved in acquiring such status. Nevertheless, the question of when an IDP ought no longer to be considered displaced is pertinent. The common assumption, and the one that parallels the logic behind voluntary repatriation, is that once an individual voluntarily returns home, they are no longer considered to be an IDP. However, there are both push and pull factors involved in repatriation efforts, and the notion of voluntariness alone cannot bring about a cessation of protection.

Perhaps a more appropriate suggestion is that an individual is no longer internally displaced when they have resettled locally or when the conditions that caused their displacement have changed in a significant manner, so that the reasons for the initial displacement no longer exist. Local resettlement and a change of circumstances must be evaluated in terms of how able the person is to sustain themselves and how able the state is to offer protection.

International Protection of IDPs

It is only since the 1980s that IDPs have been a significant matter of concern for the international community. There continues to be no international body mandated to protect IDPs. The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] has, hitherto fulfilled this role, but only within the context of actual armed conflicts.

In addition, IDPs are protected within the framework of international human rights instruments and their supervisory bodies. However, these bodies are limited in their enforcement capabilities and individuals are only able to make claims under those treaties to which the state in which they are residing is party. Furthermore, the majority of human right principles are subject to derogation in times of national emergency or during internal disturbances. It is precisely in such times of insecurity that people are forcibly moved. Additionally, IHRL and treaty bodies are state-centric to the extent that it is only states that can be held accountable under these treaties. Movement that is coerced by non-state actors will remain outside the scope of their jurisdiction unless it can be proven that the state was unwilling to afford protection.

In an effort to offer better protection to IDPs and in recognition of this growing area of concern, the UNSG, in 1992, appointed Francis Deng as the Special Representative on IDPs. Six years later, in 1998, Deng presented the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These identify the specific needs of IDPs and the specific obligations upon states and non-state actors towards these populations. While not binding in law, the Guiding Principles have gained significant recognition within the UN, among states and NGOs, and within regional bodies.


As a result of the lack of an international organization mandated to protect and assist IDPs, much of the responsibility has fallen to the UNHCR. Although UNHCRs Statute makes no reference to IDPs, Article 9 recognizes that the High Commissioner may engage in such activitiesas the General Assembly may determine, within the limits of the resources placed at his disposal. The last part of this clause is important. There are many who feel that saddling an already over-burdened and under-financed UNHCR with more responsibilities will result in the denigration of the protection of refugees. Likewise, if the UNHCR is involved to a great extent with IDP populations, its activities may be construed as obviating the need for international protection and asylum. Those developed states that are desperately seeking to reduce the number of asylum-seekers who arrive at their borders may take UNHCRs involvement as a sign that refugee flows ought to be stopped at the source and refugees made to stay in their country-of-origin where they may seek UNHCR assistance. Similarly, with the increasing references made to an IFA as a basis for denial of refugee status, if the UNHCR is heavily involved in providing protection in a given area of a particular state, the asylum state may interpret this area to represent a viable IFA and deny an asylum-seeker on that basis.

Despite these misgivings, there can be no doubt that efforts aimed at better protecting and assisting IDPs must be pursued. At present, international response is patchy at best and wholly inadequate at worst. Deng and Cohen, in their book Masses in Flight, make a plea for a better division of labour among the various UN agencies and NGOs so that efforts aimed to address the needs of IDPs are more targeted. (Deng & Cohen 1998)

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Last updated Aug 17, 2011