E.g., 06/04/2023
E.g., 06/04/2023
The Internally Displaced in Perspective

The Internally Displaced in Perspective

Uprooted from their homes and trapped within the borders of their own states, the world's 20 to 25 million "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) are a defining feature of the post-Cold War era. Their plight, which now amounts to a global crisis, poses a challenge to established systems of humanitarian relief and protection, as well as to international law's longstanding principle of national sovereignty.

Many factors, sometimes in combination, create IDPs. The most important at present are internal armed conflicts, economic upheaval and natural disasters. Most of the millions of men, women and children uprooted by these forces endure squalid living conditions, daily hardships to obtain necessities such as water or food, and the threat of death from violence, deprivation or disease. Today, the largest concentrations of internally displaced persons can be found in Sudan, Angola, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Sierra Leone and Turkey.

IDPs are rarely counted accurately, however, due in part to disagreements over how to define who is internally displaced. This is tied to a lack of awareness of their needs as a population, and a shortage of resources devoted to establishing an accurate statistical base of knowledge. Hence, the estimate of 20-25 million IDPs frequently cited by commentators may well fall short of the actual total. In contrast, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that the number of refugees globally is some 12.1 million.

IDPs: Where Do They Live?
Factors such as war, geographic isolation and government hostility complicate efforts to count internally displaced persons. Below are counts and estimates of the top ten countries in terms of their IDP populations as of December 31, 2000. (Source: World Refugee Survey 2001, U.S. Committee for Refugees.)
Country Number of IDPs
Sudan 4.5 million*
Colombia 2.45 million
Angola 2 million to 3 million*
Congo-Kinshasha 2 million*
Indonesia 1.4 million
Afghanistan 1 million*
Burma 600,000-1 million*
Turkey 400,000-1 million*
Sri Lanka 800,000
Iraq 700,000*
* Reliable estimate of the number of displaced persons is unavailable

Although the mass displacement of people within their own countries is nothing new, several developments have helped push the IDP issue into the spotlight in recent years. One is the last decade's proliferation of wars, many of them internal, in which civilians are fleeing en masse to avoid increasingly routine attempts to target them. Another is the international media's wider role in alerting the public to such conflicts. Still another factor is the growing preference of many countries for aiding and protecting IDPs right in their homelands, instead of opening their borders to refugees. Together, these developments are fueling a serious debate about how best to aid and protect IDPs.

Sovereignty and Responsibility

At the core of the IDP problem lie fundamental and unresolved questions regarding the scope of humanitarian action and the limitations of sovereignty -- questions that are being actively debated by governments, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

To begin with, there is no clear legal framework for dealing with IDPs. People at risk of persecution who legitimately seek shelter by crossing international borders are protected (in theory at least) by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its principal guardian agency, the UNHCR. In contrast, the IDPs' principal recourse for seeking legal protection and assistance remains their own governments, which may be unable or unwilling to offer assistance due to an ongoing civil conflict or other reasons.

Efforts to define more clearly the legal status of IDPs gained momentum in January 2000, when then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke argued that there was no meaningful difference between a refugee and someone who is internally displaced. He made an impassioned plea that "policy makers should not let the bureaucratic euphemisms and acronyms allow us to ignore these people."

While Holbrooke's call to action helped spotlight the plight of IDPs, it also fueled debate. Some governments resist equating refugees with IDPs, citing the fundamental principle of national sovereignty around which the international system is organized. Nevertheless, Holbrooke's declarations may signal the approach of the end of the era in which states could hide human rights abuses behind the cloak of sovereignty.

In a related sign of changing times, the special representative of the UN secretary general on IDPs, Francis Deng, has proposed tying the idea of sovereign authority to governments' responsibility for treating all their citizens decently. Doing so draws IDP protection more in line with developments in international criminal law, as well as moves towards the creation of an international criminal court. There is still a long way to go, however, in terms of holding both states and non-state actors accountable for human rights violations against all citizens, the internally displaced among them.

Filling the Gaps

For many years, international efforts to assist the internally displaced have been handicapped by two factors: the lack of a clear definition as to what constitutes "internal displacement" and the absence of responsibility vested in any one international institution to provide for the needs of the displaced. The international community has sought to address this gray area through both a "normative" approach (elaborating on the legal framework governing the treatment of IDPs), and an "operational" approach (investigating improved systems to deliver protection and assistance).

The Normative Framework
Since his appointment in 1992, the special representative of the UN secretary general on IDPs has played a particularly significant role in establishing a legal framework (for further information on his mandate, click here).

Deng's work has been to develop a body of principles specifically targeted at meeting the needs of IDPs. The "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement," introduced in 1998, identify the rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of IDPs during all the various phases of displacement.

While not a formal legal instrument, the document reiterates binding principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. It also provides a legal framework within which to coordinate the efforts of the various governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental actors engaged in providing protection and assistance to the internally displaced. The effect has been to reaffirm the key principle of non-discrimination in the treatment of the internally displaced, and to lay out a spectrum of standards relating to protection from displacement, protection during displacement, as well as principles relating to return, resettlement and reintegration.

Of critical importance is the attempt by these guiding principles to broadly identify "who" IDPs are. As such, the principles note that the internally displaced are:

[P]ersons 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.

There are two key elements in this description (note that the drafters assiduously avoided the term "definition"). First, coerced or involuntary movement must have taken place. Second, this movement must have occurred within the borders of a person's country or place of habitual residence. The description is especially significant because it is broader than any in use at the international or regional level, and includes displacement due to natural or man-made disasters. Moreover, the description's use of the phrase "in particular" indicates that the list is not exhaustive.

The breadth of the description contained in the guiding principles has aroused controversy, however, and some agencies continue for a variety of reasons to focus only on those who flee because of conflict or for persecution-related reasons. Others maintain that the definition is not broad enough, because it excludes people who are displaced due to extreme poverty.

More generally, there are agencies -- most notably, the International Committee of the Red Cross -- that question the wisdom of pre-defining a segment of the population for protection and assistance, noting that it is important to address the needs of all civilian victims of armed conflict, whether or not they are displaced.

The Operational Framework
Efforts to strengthen the legal framework for IDP issues have been accompanied by attempts to improve inadequate systems of protection and assistance in the field. Over the last few years, a number of possible approaches have been considered, including the creation of a new agency specifically tasked with IDP protection and assistance. Another option being weighed is the designation of an existing agency to take this role, or collaboration among existing agencies.

The United Nations has consistently opted for the "collaborative approach" of agencies, despite the well-documented gaps in response to which this has led in such countries as Angola, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is particularly true with regard to providing protection to IDPs and mobilizing resources on their behalf. The coordination of collaborating agencies is meant to be performed by the emergency relief coordinator of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In a sign of increasing attention to the internally displaced, the coordinator has since the beginning of 2002 been advised by a small IDP-focused unit within his office.

Looking Ahead

Despite the strides that have been made in recent years toward addressing the issue of internal displacement, much work remains to be done. Protecting and assisting the internally displaced remains one of the most complex issues facing humanitarian organizations today, raising a whole host of legal, ethical, and practical difficulties.

At the core of these difficulties lie fundamental and unresolved questions regarding the scope of humanitarian action and the limitations of sovereignty. In its publication The State of the World's Refugees 1997-98 -- A Humanitarian Agenda, the UNHCR has encapsulated the problem by asking: "To what extent can humanitarian organizations substitute for an absence of national protection, even if the government and other actors consent to their presence?" And, crucially, "[I]f such consent is not forthcoming, do the United Nations and other multilateral actors have the right or the capacity to intervene in an assertive or coercive manner?" Such questions pose a major challenge to the international community in the 21st century, and how they are answered could have significant consequences for millions of people.


Holbrooke, Richard. Statement by U.S. Ambassador R. Holbrooke to Cardozo Law School, New York 28 March 2000. http://www.un.int/usa/00_044.htm.

Deng, Francis. Report presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998 by Francis Deng, Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons. UN Document No. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 (1998).

The Report of the Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, 3 July 2001. UN Document No. A/56/168. http://www.idpproject.org/links/links_UN.htm#11

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2001. "2000 Global Refugee Trends -- Analysis of the 2000 Provisional UNHCR Population Statistics." May 2001. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.unhcr.ch

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 1997. The State of the World's Refugees 1997-98 -- A Humanitarian Agenda, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading:

Cohen, Roberta and Deng, M. Francis eds. 1998. Masses in Flight -- The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

Cohen, Roberta and Deng, M. Francis eds. 1998. The Forsaken People -- Case Studies of the Internally Displaced. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

Refslund Sorensen, Birgitte and Vincent, Marc eds. 2001. Caught Between Borders -- Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced. London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press in association with the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Useful Websites:

Global IDP Project

The Brookings/CUNY Project on Internal Displacement