At least 6.8 million people were displaced last year, mainly by long-running conflicts, pushing the number of those forced to live away from home to 27 million - the highest since the mid-1990s, a new report states.
“The massive population movements and shocking violence are a sad reminder of the price that civilians pay in armed conflict,” Elisabeth Rasmusson, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said while launching the 2009 annual report on displacement at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. “Millions of people were newly displaced by conflicts in which combatants did not meet their obligations to protect civilians.”
The report, published by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (part of the NRC), said that while the number of refugees in the world remained fairly static, that of IDPs was rising steadily.
The distinction between a refugee and an IDP is clear in international law, but for the people who packed up their families and a few possessions and fled their homes to escape conflict it was often a matter of chance whether or not they crossed an international border.
The biggest single group of newly displaced people was in Pakistan, where some three million people fled army offensives against the Taliban and other armed groups. Most of the displacement was, however, temporary and they have now been able to go home. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, one million were newly displaced in 2009, as were over half a million in Sudan, and 400,000 each in Somalia and Colombia.
The IDPs, Rasmusson said, were often poorer and more vulnerable than refugees, and unable to travel as far from the conflict zone. The responsibility for their security and welfare should lie with their own governments, but some were reluctant to acknowledge the existence of displaced people within their borders. “They prefer to call them dislocated, or mobile or vulnerable populations,” she said.
The report cites Algeria, Myanmar, Indonesia and Zimbabwe as denying internal displacement. “This is arguably an attempt to deny the displaced access to the assistance they are entitled to by international law,” she said.
Rasmusson and John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, paid tribute to the African Union for its adoption last October of a Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. Holmes called the convention “very significant” and “a major step forward”.
“It recognises that states have a duty to prevent displacement and a responsibility towards those displaced,” he said at the report launch. “But the test will be whether the number of displaced is now reduced.”
|Displacement creates an unacceptable burden on the communities that host IDPs, many of whom are themselves in need of humanitarian or development assistance...|
Asked whether the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, should take responsibility for the welfare of IDPs, or whether a new international body was needed, Holmes said: “I think it is right for the UNHCR to take on more of this role.” However, he recognised that there was some resistance within the organization and among donors to a dilution of its mandate.
“We don’t want the UNHCR to be confined to the static problem of refugees, while IDPs are a massively expanding problem,” he added.
On the implications of displacement, he said: “Displacement creates an unacceptable burden on the communities that host IDPs, many of whom are themselves in need of humanitarian or development assistance...
“Furthermore, protracted displacement, and the marginalization that results, can have serious political, security and financial implications for national governments. As we have seen around the world, failure to resolve displacement inevitably undermines national efforts aimed at long-term peace and stability in post-crisis countries.”