UNICEF Global Workshop on IDPs

The Global IDP Situation in a Changing Humanitarian Context

Allow me to start by thanking the organizers – and especially Mirna Yacoub – for inviting me to this important workshop. I am honored to be here and to be making this opening presentation. A few words about my affiliation: I am Deputy Director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, based at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. For over a decade our Project has worked directly in support of the mandate of the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on IDPs. The current mandate holder is Professor Walter Kälin and his full title is Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Our Project provides policy analysis and research for the RSG (as he is known) – for example we have recently completed major reports on ‘Protracted IDP Situations’ and ‘IDPs and Peace’.

Who is an IDP?

The standard definition of an IDP is that used in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement – about which more later – which defines internally displaced persons as: “…persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or 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 internally recognized state border.”

There are, therefore, two defining characteristics of an IDP: first the coercive or involuntary character of movement, and second that movement takes place within national borders.

Let me make two wider observations on the definition: First, unlike the refugee definition, the definition of an IDP is descriptive as opposed to legal. Like the Guiding Principles as a whole, the IDP definition has not been negotiated or agreed by states in a binding treaty, and has no formal legal standing. On the other hand the Guiding Principles – and the definition – are widely recognized as an international standard.

Second, note that the IDP definition is much broader and more inclusive than the refugee definition. Whereas the 1951 Convention narrowly covers people fleeing persecution on five specified grounds, the IDP definition covers people fleeing for a range of reasons including natural disasters. Some argue that the refugee definition is too narrow and exclusive – equally some argue that the IDP definition is too wide and inclusive.

Read the full speech »