Jeff Crisp
Associate Fellow, International Law Programme
Concern for the plight of people who have sought sanctuary in other states has been matched by a neglect of those who are unable to leave their own countries and who are beyond the reach of aid agencies.
Children of displaced families peer out of the window of a former government building in Ibb, Yemen. Photo: Getty Images.Children of displaced families peer out of the window of a former government building in Ibb, Yemen. Photo: Getty Images.

The current prominence of the issue of refugees around the world is understandable. Refugee influxes are highly visible, especially when they involve large numbers of people who are putting their lives at risk, crossing frontiers without authorization and congregating in squalid makeshift settlements. Their arrival raises difficult issues related to national sovereignty, state security and social cohesion.

But while these are important and pressing issues, the international community’s keen interest in the refugee problem has detracted attention from the fact that there are other groups of vulnerable people across the globe who are in equal, if not greater, need of human rights protection and humanitarian assistance – internally displaced people (IDPs).

According to UNHCR, around 65 million people around the world have been displaced by armed conflict or human rights violations. Some 21 million are refugees – namely people who have crossed an international frontier to seek safety in another state. Whereas twice that number, some 42 million, are IDPs, those who have also been uprooted by violence or persecution, but who remain within the boundaries of their own state.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the situation of IDPs was the subject of mounting interest, a trend linked to the end of the Cold War and a growing consensus that the internal affairs of states were no longer beyond international scrutiny, as well as the emergence of the doctrines of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘responsibility to protect’.

Based on a growing body of research, legal analysis and NGO advocacy, a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were established under the UN’s auspices, intended to shape the way that IDPs were treated by states and non-state actors. The UN secretary-general appointed a special representative for Internally Displaced Persons, while the African Union established the Kampala Convention, a treaty governing the provision of protection and assistance to IDPs in Africa.

Over the past decade, that positive trend has been reversed. The influential Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement has been closed due to a lack of financial and political support. The special representative’s post has been downgraded to that of a special rapporteur. The 25-page New York Declaration formulated at the UN General Assembly summit last year included just one short paragraph on IDPs, based on ‘the possibility that such persons might seek protection and assistance in other countries as refugees or migrants’.

As these developments suggest, in an era when cross-border movements are so large in scope and scale, and at a time when national interests take precedence over global principles, states are not too troubled by the notion that uprooted populations should remain within their own country, even if – as in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen – they are subject to dreadful human rights violations and are seriously deprived of assistance.

Indeed, the experience of such countries suggests that the most vulnerable people of all are not those who have fled to another state or who have been displaced within their own country. Those most at risk are the communities that are unable to move, either because they are stuck in urban centres that are under systematic siege, or because they are caught behind or between the front-lines of armed groups, in areas where humanitarian organizations are unable to operate.

While the international community’s recent efforts to address the refugee issue are to be welcomed, those initiatives must not become an excuse for a failure to act on behalf of the internally displaced and those who are trapped in conflict zones. Their protection needs are often greater and must consequently be given a much higher priority than is currently the case.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback