A Nightmarish Existence: The number of internally displaced persons has risen to 21 million worldwidetwice the number of refugees.

While the number of refugees who are residing in a foreign country dropped worldwide in the 1990’s, during the same period civil wars, government repression and other forms of social violence led to a dramatic increase in the number of persons displaced within their own countries. In Sudan alone, an estimated four million peoplethe largest uprooted population in the worldstruggle to scratch out a precarious and danger-filled existence. Angola and Colombia follow Sudan with close to two million uprooted nationals. Caught in the midst of various armed conflicts, citizens of these and other nations are in effect refugees within the borders of their own countries.

The great and painful difference between internally displaced persons and actual refugees, however, is that whereas the latter are officially entitled to the protection and assistance of the international communityespecially through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugeesthe former are not. They are thus denied the comparative safety of refugee camps where at least their basic needs can be met and protection provided. Theoretically, sovereign states are responsible for the safety and treatment of their own citizens, but states in disarray may be incapable of assisting or protecting their people. Some, moreover, knowingly create the displacement. In October, for instance, the non-profit U.S. Committee for Refugees reported that the Sudanese government had resumed aerial bombings of civilian sites in southern Sudan. In this year alone, the government has bombed humanitarian or civilian sites at least 67 times as the country’s civil war drags on.


To understand the difference between refugees and internally displaced persons, imagine two families living in a developing nation. Each consists of parents with two children, a boy of 13 and a girl of 14. In one case, the family lives near the border of a neighboring country to which they are able to flee. Reaching a refugee camp operated by an international agency, they receive adequate shelter, food, medical care and protection. In addition, some basic schooling is available for the children. The other family is far less fortunate. Driven from their home in the interior of the country, the father is killed in the prevailing violence. The mother and children seek shelter in a poorly equipped displacement site operated by the government. Food supplies from a nongovernmental agency are scanty, and although the mother is ill, no medicines are available. Members of one of the warring parties pass by and force her son to join them as a boy soldier. The girl is also taken awayperhaps to be used as a sexual slave. The mother realizes that she may never see her children again. While the latter example represents a worse-case scenario, it is well within the realm of possibility in countries wracked by civil conflict and human rights abuses.

In January 2000 the dilemma of internally displaced persons was highlighted by the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrook. On his return from a trip to Angola, he raised the question: Where should help and protection for people in such predicaments come from? Although refugees and internally displaced persons have hitherto been seen as distinct groups in terms of what the international community can and cannot do for them, he observed in a speech at the United Nations that to a person who has been driven from his or her home by conflict, there is no difference. They are equally victims. Then he added: But they are treated differently. He suggested that the distinction between the two groups be minimized, and that the responsibility for serving both be placed with the U.N.H.C.R. as our best hope for dealing with these problems.

Some advocates, like Richard Ryscavage, S.J., the director of Jesuit Refugee Service USA, welcomed the suggestion. Although in theory committed to helping only refugees, he said that Jesuit Refugee Service is increasingly expected to deliver assistance to internally displaced persons too, but without the normal infrastructural supports and protections that come from the international community when it is a question of helping refugees. So we have to operate without our usual connections, like the U.N.H.C.R. and other agencies, he said, adding that this in turn puts tremendous pressure on nongovernmental agencies like J.R.S. and contributes to the dangers faced by their workers.

Denial by repressive governments of the situation faced by internally displaced people is not uncommon. The government of Colombia, Father Ryscavage said, has contended that they are primarily internal migrants moving about in search of jobs, rather than people fleeing from conflict caused by paramilitary groups, Marxist guerilla bands and government forces. Similarly, the Sudanese government will claim that internally displaced persons are part of the rebel movement, or are moving from one end of the country to the other by choice. By forcing uprooted citizens to remain on their territory, governments like these, he observed, see them as less of a threat.

So-called safe places have been established in some conflict-ridden countries to provide temporary protection for internally displaced persons, but they are often far from safe. William Frelick, director of policy for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, cited the example of Bosnia. The security council of the United Nations designated safe areas there, but they turned out to be among the most unsafe in the world, he said. In order to maintain its claim on the territory, the Bosnian government wanted its people to remain in supposedly safe areas. But do you put people in danger because you want to save the territory? he asked. By declaring these areas to be safe, the international community was duty bound to make them so, and it did not. The internally displaced Bosnians were herded into them and massacred.

What made matters worse, Mr. Frelick said, was that a few months after the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992, every European country had imposed visa restrictions that, by denying entry, all but sealed fleeing Bosnians within their own borders. Restrictive visa measures of this kind, he noted, represent de facto violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 speaks of the right to seek asylum from persecution outside one’s own country. A parallel situation exists in the United States through the stringent expedited removal procedures introduced with the 1996 immigration reform law. The Immigration and Naturalization Service frequently returns immigrants, including asylum seekers, to their own countries if they reach our shores without acceptable documentation. The visual image might well be that of two high walls: one wall keeps fleeing people within their own countries, subject to danger and deprivation; the other wallif they do manage to escapeprevents them from being admitted to another nation in search of safety.

At greatest risk of all are women and children, who make up 80 percent of internally displaced persons throughout the world. Mary Diaz, executive director of the Commission for Refugee Women and Children, pointed out that while they face many of the same problems as refugees in having to flee their homes, internally displaced women and children confront situations that can be far worse. One concerns the lack of educational opportunities. Children in refugee camps receive some education through international agencies, but their internally displaced peers do not. In Colombia, for example, Ms. Diaz said, a mother attempting to escape the violence might move to the outskirts of a major city like Bogotá and try to enroll her children in the local school system, but their living conditions are so bad that it’s almost impossible. In Sudan, children and adolescents have been out of school for such lengthy periodsits civil war is now in its 17th yearthat many Sudanese worry that they are losing their future generation of teachers, doctors and leaders.

If carried out, Ambassador Holbrook’s proposal to integrate care for internally displaced persons structurally with care for refugees might indeed improve the lot of the former, both in terms of assistance and protection. But his suggestion has provoked great uneasiness among those in the international community whose primary mandate is the assistance and protection of refugees. As Father Ryscavage put it: There is a fear that if internally displaced persons were to be treated not as a separate category, but as refugees, the protocols regarding refugees that have been built up over decades might be weakened. The argument in some quarters, he said, is that it would be better to create a new institution for them within the international community, in order not to threaten the major institution that already exists at the United Nations, namely the U.N.H.C.R..

But a more immediate issue concerns the scarcity of resources. In an address on July 18 at the Center for the Study of International Organizations, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke of the inadequate funding within her organization. It presently operates, she said, in a zero-sum budgetary environment. As a result, to expand its activities in order to include aid for internally displaced persons would mean equivalent reductions somewhere else in the world. Already, Mrs. Ogata emphasized, the U.N.H.C.R. is hard pressed to meet the basic needs of refugees, our primary and mandatory responsibility. Many of the donor governments have been less than forthcoming in helping the U.N.H.C.R. to carry out its existing responsibilities. Shortly before her July address, it launched an appeal to raise $23 million in food and shelter assistance for Eritreans displaced by the war in Ethiopia. But what tangible support, Mrs. Ogata wondered, can we expect?

The United States has designated $37 million of its $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia for internally displaced persons. But Mr. Frelick described this comparatively small sum as merely icing on what is overwhelmingly a military aid package. Nongovernmental agencies there, he said, want no part of what they regard as blood money that will result in the displacement of still more people. On an annual basis, the United States provides assistance for refugees and displaced persons through its yearly appropriations bill, which includes funding for the Migration and Refugee Affairs account. It is from this account that the government makes contributions to the U.N.H.C.R., the International Committee of the Red Cross and other similar organizations. The U.S. Committee for Refugees believes that at least $700 million should be provided through the appropriations bill, but current funding proposals in Congress for the M.R.A. account are considerably less. Mr. Frelick said that rich nations like the United States have generally been less than generous in their funding for international organizations that assist internally displaced persons and refugees.

What future hope there is for internally displaced persons may lie in what are known as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Francis M. Deng, the representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, presented them in 1998 to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Although they are not legally binding in the manner of a treaty, Father Ryscavage said that they have been well received by most countries caught up in conflicts, even the Sudan. There are 30 principles in all, which address every aspect of displacement. But their overall theme, he noted, is that internally displaced persons should be treated exactly like other persons in the country in which they reside. That is, they should receive protection and assistance during displacement, and guarantees for safe return and resettlement. Although structures for implementing the principles are still lacking, the fact that the principles have been developed at all represents an important development. In the meantime, unfortunately, with no end in sight for internal wars and other armed conflicts, the number of internally displaced persons has continued to rise to 21 million worldwideapproximately twice the number of refugeescondemning them to what Mrs. Ogata has termed a nightmarish existence within their own borders.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 12 months ago
My response to the fine article by George M. Anderson, S.J., pointing out the plight of internally displaced persons (12/9/00) is long in coming because my copy of America is always a month or two behind. It has to find its way to Burundi, in Central Africa, where I represent Catholic Relief Services. He does well to bring to light this distinction between refugees and I.D.P.’s, because the international response to refugees is much greater than it is to I.D.P.’s, who fall under the authority and mandate of their own governments.

I would point out that in many countries the present humanitarian response to internally displaced persons is in fact covered, for the most part, by nongovernmental organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service and many other N.G.O.’s. Thanks to the support of Caritas Internationalis partners and to the U.S. government, C.R.S. was able to respond, together with the Burundian church, quickly and efficiently to the great needs of the I.D.P.’s in a situation of extreme insecurity caused by the civil war in Burundi in 1999-2000.

The question of the mandate for the protection of and humanitarian response to internally displaced people is of the highest priority and must be recognized and resolved by the international community; but until that is worked out it is important to know that the humanitarian community, in the form of N.G.O.’s like C.R.S., is present to the great suffering of the internally displaced persons in many countries.


The latest from america

Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019
The extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to.
​Helen AlvaréJanuary 17, 2019
In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019
I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019