“Internal displacement has emerged as one of the great human tragedies of our time. It has created an unprecedented challenge for the international community to find ways to respond to what is essentially an internal crisis…”
‘An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who has been forced to leave their home for reasons such as natural or man-made disasters, including religious or political persecution or war, but has not crossed an international border. There is no legal definition of IDP, as there is for refugee, but the rule is, that if the person in question would be eligible for refugee status if he or she crossed an international border then the IDP label is applicable. IDP’s are not technically refugees because they have not crossed an international border, but are sometimes casually referred to as refugees.’ (Wikipedia 2005)
There are currently 25 million people worldwide living in situations of internal displacement as a result of conflicts or human rights violations (See plate 1). Although internally displaced people now out-number refugees by two to one, their problems receive far less international attention.
‘Many IDP’s remain exposed to violence and other human rights violations during their displacement. Often they have no or only very limited access to food, employment, education and health care. Large numbers of IDP’s are caught in desperate situations amidst fighting or in remote and inaccessible areas cut-off from international assistance. Others have been forced to live away from their homes for many years, or even decades, because the conflicts that caused their displacement remained unresolved.’ (Global IDP Project 2005)
‘While refugees are eligible to receive international protection and help under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, the international community is not under the same legal obligation to protect and assist internally displaced people. National governments have the primary responsibility for the security and well-being of all displaced people on their territory, but often they are unable or unwilling to live up to this obligation.’ (Global IDP Project 2005)
‘The two agencies which have been most consistently and visibly involved in situations of internal displacement and which can most effectively address the protection needs of internally displaced populations are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNHCR. Both organizations have a long-established and internationally recognized protection mandate. Also, both agencies are familiar with the task of combining their protection function with the implementation of large-scale assistance programmes’ (UNHCR 1997).
The United Nations via the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently agreed on non-binding Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement based on the refugee instruments, which defines internally displaced persons as: “Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to 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 generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” (UNHCR 2005)
‘Since its formation in 1863, the ICRC has been providing protection and assistance to non-combatants affected by war and internal conflict, many of whom are internally displaced people. The ICRC, however, extends its services to all civilian victims of conflict, whether they have been obliged to move or not, rather than treating internally displaced people as a special category. Similarly, the ICRC does not work on the basis of a specific protection regime for internally displaced people.
Instead, it oversees the implementation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, which provide protection for all civilians (including internally displaced people) in the context of international and non-international armed conflict. As a result of its strict neutrality and unique status as the guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC has often found it possible to work on both sides of a conflict and to gain access to populations which are beyond the reach of other agencies. In Chechnya, for example, the ICRC was one of the few agencies permitted to work with displaced and war-affected populations within the republic itself, whereas UNHCR and other UN agencies were only allowed to work with displaced people in the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia, Daghestan and North Ossetia’ (UNHCR 1997).
However, there is still no dedicated UN agency to deal with IDP’s. This is thought to be because any attempt by an outside body to tell a nation how it should treat its own people has been seen as a violation of the principle of national sovereignty. Other organisations which are involved with IDP’s include The Global IDP Project. The Global IDP Project, established by the Norwegian Refugee Council at the request of the United Nations, monitors conflict-induced internal displacement worldwide. The Geneva-based Project runs an online database providing comprehensive and regularly updated information and analysis on internal displacement in over 50 countries. (Global IDP Project 2005)
Map 1 shows the distribution of IDP’s throughout the world.
‘Displacement has been a widespread feature of the 40-year-long conflict in Colombia, and over three million Colombians have been internally displaced since 1985. The Colombian internal displacement crisis is the world’s worst after Sudan, disproportionately affecting Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, who are among the country’s poorest. Map 3 shows the distribution of IDP’s in Colombia. Although there is no consensus on the number of IDP’s in Colombia, with estimates ranging from over a million to 2.9 million, there is agreement that the problem is getting worse. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), 2002 was the worst year of displacement since 1985, with an estimated 1,141 persons displaced each day. IDP’s increasingly seek refuge in and around the major cities. They flee again within urban centres to escape armed urban groups and violent crime.
Stigmatized, they live invisibly, without adequate security, long-term assistance, proper shelter, and viable options for resolving their displacement. The protection of people displaced and those at risk of displacement has not improved since 2002, when President Alvaro Uribe’s government stepped up efforts to end the conflict by military means, under its policy of “democratic security”. While the Colombian army has regained control of large parts of national territory, this has been at the cost of civilian lives and freedoms. The new strategy drew more civilians into the conflict, and armed groups displaced some 290,000 people in 2004 alone.
At the same time, sexual violence, disappearances and extra-judicial executions have been on the increase. The number of people newly displaced is widely believed to be under-reported, due to fear of persecution and the fact that many are refused official registration, notably those forced to flee due to the fumigation of coca crops and those displaced within their cities. Without this status, IDP’s are often denied the limited assistance offered by the state. The government has made the return of IDP’s a priority, but there are concerns that people have been returned to areas where insecurity still prevailed and with very little assistance to re-build their livelihoods. As a result, many have been forced to flee again. The emphasis on return has undermined the implementation of policies and programmes in support of what is the preferred solution of many IDP’s: local integration.
Although Colombia has arguably the world’s most progressive IDP legislation, the government has not implemented it adequately and several measures and amendments have actually undermined it and debilitated the rule of law all together.’ (UNHCR 1997)
(Map 2 and 3)
On the political front, negotiations with the main rebel group have been frozen since 2002, and the government has launched the largest military operation in Colombian history against guerrillas. Meanwhile, controversial talks with paramilitary groups have continued despite serious violations of the ceasefire. Thousand of illegal fighters have already been demobilised, but there are fears that the perpetrators of forced displacement and other war crimes will go unpunished, which would jeopardise the rights of IDP’s to regain their lost property and lands.
Government funds allocated to IDP programs are insufficient and do not adequately reach the local level. Colombia relies heavily on the international community and non-governmental organizations to meet IDP needs. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) reports, “The Government itself acknowledged that the ICRC and various NGOs provided 70 to 80 percent of humanitarian assistance received by the displaced.” Nor does the government adequately combat activities of paramilitaries that adversely affect civilians. Article 284 of Law 589 of 2000 makes forced displacement a crime, but no one has been brought to justice
‘Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Church play an important role in highlighting the plight of the internally displaced in Colombia. In 1995, for example, the Colombian Episcopal Conference completed a year-long project to assess the scale of internal displacement in Colombia. Although NGOs play a vital role in mediating between displaced people and the state, relations between the two are frequently strained. Sometimes treated with suspicion by the authorities and lacking both financial resources and technical expertise, the NGO community has tended to function in a fragmented and poorly coordinated manner. Despite the presence of many UN and international agencies in Colombia, very few of them are directly involved in assisting the internally displaced. The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the few. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also established an office in the country.’ (UNHCR 1997)
Until recently UNHCR did not have a field presence in Colombia, and was not directly involved in providing assistance or protection to the victims of internal displacement. The deteriorating situation in the country, however, has led the organization to reconsider its position, both in Colombia itself and in neighbouring countries of asylum. At the end of May 1997, UNHCR established an ‘antenna’ in Bogotï¿½ to monitor developments in Colombia. UNHCR staff have also been present in Panama since the first Colombian asylum seekers started to arrive at the end of 1996. Finally, UNHCR continues to play an active role in various regional initiatives to address the problem of internal displacement, such as the inter-agency Consultative Group on Internally Displaced in the Americas. According to recent reports, most of Colombia’s displaced people would like to leave the camps and shanty towns and to go back to the countryside; however, they will not do so until their safety is guaranteed.
* Ager, A. (1999) Refugees; Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration Continuum
* Donnellan, C. (2004) Refugees Independence
* Global IDP Project, monitoring internal displacement worldwide (2005) http://www.db.idpproject.org
* UNHCR (1997) The state of the world’s refugees, Oxford University Press.
* UNHCR, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2005) http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/7/b/principles.htm
* Wikipedia, The free encyclopaedia (2005) http://en.wikipedia.org
Plate 1 – Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) (2005) www.uusc.org
Map 1 – Global IDP Project, monitoring internal displacement worldwide (2005) http://www.db.idpproject.org
Map 2 – Columbia in relation to South America (UNHCR) (2005) http://www.unhchr.ch
Map 3 – Colombia: areas of internal displacement (UNHCR) (2005) http://www.unhchr.ch