Internal Displacement: A Human Rights Issue

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

May 18, 2007

Thanks for inviting me to talk with you about human rights and internal displacement. It’s an important issue of international concern and I’m delighted that it is on your agenda. While I plan to address some of the substantive human rights concerns of internally displaced persons (IDPs), I’d like to do so by looking at the work of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement because it offers a fascinating example of the way in which human rights issues come on the international agenda, how civil society and the UN work together, and how national policies are made.

A word of background

There has been a long history of international response to refugees, with a UN convention on refugees which has been ratified by 150 or so governments, a clear definition of who is a refugee (people who have crossed a border because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five reasons) and a UN agency – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which was mandated to protect and assist refugees. While this system has been in place since 1951, there was no corresponding system to respond to the needs of the many people who were displaced by wars and civil conflict but who had not crossed an international border. In the mid-1980s a number of NGOs working with refugees began to hear from their partners or from field staff about the needs of these “internal refugees” or internally displaced persons (IDPs) as they came to be called. In fact, people who were internally displaced were often in far more desperate conditions than refugees living outside their countries. They were typically closer to the violence which displaced them and it was much more difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs as the conflicts were often still going on. NGOs raised this issue at the UN Human Rights Commission and spent a couple of years collecting information, raising awareness about the issue, lobbying governments, and developing a strategy. In particular, the advocates sought to use the special procedures of the then-Human Rights Commission and called for the appointment of a special representative on IDPs.


There are currently an estimated 25 million IDPs in the world although the statistics are far from perfect. IDPs are defined in the Guiding Principles as:

  • Persons or groups of person 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.

They are people who have been forced to leave their communities but, unlike refugees, have not crossed a border. The definition is also broader than the definition for refugees as it includes those displaced by natural or human-made disasters. Also unlike the situation for refugees, the term “IDP” does not have a specific legal status. Governments may register IDPs as a tool in providing assistance, but statistics on IDPs are notoriously flawed. People are often fleeing repression by their own governments and thus have an incentive not to be noticed or counted.

The Guiding Principles were developed by the RSG and the Project to set forth the rights of IDPs and the obligations of governments and other actors. They are based on international humanitarian and human rights law and refugee law, by analogy, and are intended to guide governments and other organizations in upholding the human rights of IDPs. The Guiding Principles are not new international law, but rather a compilation and distillation of human rights which are included in other binding human rights instruments. While the principles are not a treaty to be signed and ratified by governments, the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly have welcomed their use as an important tool and encouraged governments and UN agencies to act on them.

The Guiding Principles spell out that it is first and foremost the duty and responsibility of national governments to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to IDPs within their jurisdiction. IDPs are entitled to the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as other persons in their country, including the rights to education, to dignity, to freedom of movement, to seek asylum in another country, to participate in the political process, etc. But international humanitarian organizations have the right to offer their services in support of the internally displaced.

Until recently UN responsibility for IDPs was based on a “collaborative approach” in which relevant UN agencies were asked to work together to determine which agency was in the best position to provide protection and assistance to IDPs. That system never worked very well as UN agencies were eager to be responsible for some IDPs – particularly in cases where significant funding was made available – and less willing to work with IDPs in emergencies far from the public eye. In late 2005, the Emergency Relief Coordinator introduced a humanitarian reform process. One component of this humanitarian reform was to entrust the responsibility for particular areas of work to “clusters,” each of which was to be coordinated by a lead agency. UNHCR was given the responsibility to coordinate the clusters providing protection, emergency shelter, and camp management to conflict-induced IDPs. UNHCR, UNICEF and OHCHR were asked to work together to determine who was best placed to coordinate protection of IDPs who were displaced because of natural disasters. It is too early to know how effective this cluster approach will be, but the humanitarian community generally sees this as a positive sign in that accountability should be more clear in the new system. In comparison with the refugee regime – where there is an international convention, a clear definition of who is a refugee and a UN agency charged with their protection and assistance – the international system for responding to IDPs is “softer” and not as clearcut.

Instead of an internationally-ratified convention, there are Guiding Principles which have been “welcomed” by states and the United Nations. There is a clear definition of an IDP, but it is descriptive in nature and not legally binding. There is a UN agency charged with coordinating protection and some assistance to IDPs, but this was determined by a reform process rather than codified in international law.

The Brookings-Bern Project

Let me return now to a description of the Project and its work so that you can see how the issue of human rights for IDPs has been advanced by this unique partnership between the UN’s RSG and the Brookings Institution.[1]

Our overall objective is to promote the human rights of IDPs and we do that by working in four areas:

Strengthening the normative framework

  • The RSG and the Project developed the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, in a broadly consultative process among legal experts from around the world. These have been widely disseminated and translated these into more than 40 languages, and are available on our website.
  • In the wake of the tsunami, the Project developed the Operational Principles for the Protection of Human Rights of People Displaced by Natural Disasters. These have been welcomed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and a training module is being developed.
  • Other work to strengthen the normative framework includes:
    • Development of a framework for national responsibility and a framework for “when displacement ends,”
    • Development of a web-based database on laws and policies
    • Work with regional bodies – such as the African Union as they develop regional protocols on IDPs
    • A manual for policymakers about how to translate the Guiding Principles into national laws, and
    • Development of a roster of experts to provide technical advice to governments which want to modify existing laws or develop new laws on IDPs.

Enhancing the will to protect

This is carried out through missions and working visits of the RSG where he engages with governments on IDP issues, encouraging them to respond to IDPs in a way that enhances their human rights. He corresponds with governments, raising specific concerns and offering technical advice. But work in this area also involves raising awareness of IDP issues in civil society, governments, and international organizations. A major component of the mandate of the RSG is mainstreaming work with IDPs into the UN system. He reports regularly to the UN Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly. At Brookings we organize seminars on particular issues – such as on Iraq and Colombia — as well as thematic issues such as laws and policies on IDPs. We write Op-eds on IDP issues and publish a variety of articles raising issues of concern to IDPs. We maintain a website and distribute regular updates via a listserv to people who are interested in IDP issues. All of this is intended to raise awareness about – and inspire action to address – the needs of IDPs.

Building the capacity to protect

Our work includes organizing seminars in the regions and working with National Human Rights Institutions and civil society to strengthen their capacity to protect and monitor IDPs. So, for example, we have organized meetings in all regions of the world on IDP issues for governments, civil society, and international organizations. We organize an annual training course in IDP law for government officials as well as training events for civil society on IDPs. We have published a guide to international human rights mechanisms for IDPs and their advocates. We publish research on best practices; presently, for example, we are completing a study on how to consult with IDPs and are doing research on the role of national and local NGOs in protecting IDPs.

Responding to new challenges

For the past two years, the RSG has devoted substantial attention to the issue of the relationship between IDPs and peace. He submitted a policy paper to the new Peacebuilding Commission on the relationship between IDPs and peacebuilding and we are publishing a comprehensive report on IDPs and peace processes, peace agreements and peacebuilding which will be launched at the Swiss mission in New York next month. In the future, we will do further work on the issue of people who are displaced – or who may be displaced – by environmental factors such as climate change. We convened a meeting a few months ago of researchers who are working in the field of internal displacement to brainstorm about where further research is needed. There was a consensus that much more needs to be learned about urban IDPs – people who are displaced but who don’t live in camps.

Influencing US policy

Although we are based in Washington DC, we probably work with other governments as much as with the US government. However, we did play a major role in advocating with the US Agency for International Development (AID) when it adopted its policy on IDPs. That policy is largely based on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and we are generally pleased with the emphasis which the US government puts on IDPs in its international humanitarian assistance programs.

But let me raise another issue which is the US domestic response to IDPs where the record of the US government is not nearly so positive. The Guiding Principles clearly apply to individuals who have been displaced because of natural disasters, such as the approximately one million people displaced in September 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. People who are displaced have certain specified rights – such as the right to participate in politics, the right to send their children to school, the right to receive assistance from their government and the right return to their communities. But the US government called the displaced people “evacuees” rather than IDPs, perhaps to avoid having to take responsibility for implementing their rights. The data available about those displaced by Katrina indicate that at least half of the population of New Orleans is still displaced. While the unemployment rate for present residents in New Orleans is 4.2%, it is 23% for those who remain displaced. Many people want to return but have nowhere to live. Those who rented their homes or apartments – the majority of New Orleans residents – find that apartments are not available and that prices have dramatically increased. Private developers have seen this as an opportunity to re-build New Orleans into a different city where those who are poor do not have a place. The Guiding Principles clearly prohibit discriminatory effects of governmental assistance policies, but there are clear racial implications of recovery policies in the region. Of New Orleans’ pre-displacement population of 460,000, 36% were African-American. Today, the percentage of New Orleans residents who are African-American is only 21%. [2]

We are presently working on a research project with the Institute for Southern Studies to analyze the implementation of the Guiding Principles in responding to people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. This report will be launched in New Orleans in September and we will organize an event in Washington to press for changes in US policies to respect the basic human rights of those who are forcibly displaced from their communities.

In the first years of our Project on Internal Displacement, the emphasis was not only on putting the issue of IDPs on the international agenda, but in stressing the human rights of IDPs – not just their humanitarian needs. In this we were largely successful. The normative framework is fairly well-established and recognized, issues of IDPs have been raised by the RSG in his visits to governments, and the international humanitarian system is being reformed to ensure that IDPs do not fall within a gap. At the same time that we have worked with governments and the UN, we have also worked with civil society which plays an important role in monitoring IDP issues, sounding the alert when rights are violated, and often providing protection and assistance to IDPs. We are now deeply involved in the phase of ensuring that the normative standards are implemented at the national, regional and international levels. This work isn’t as “glamorous” as launching new international standards and involves sustained work with governments to encourage them not only to develop good IDP legislation, but to implement it. We have done quite a bit of work, for example, in advising governments on the sticky problem of property restitution and compensation – which can be extraordinarily complex but is also fundamental to finding durable solutions for IDPs. We are presently working with the UN on doing more to finding solutions for long-term IDP situations and on ensuring that UN programs and activities take the needs of IDPs into account.

Although as a relative newcomer for the Project, I can’t take credit for its success, I do think that the partnership between the RSG and Brookings represents a unique way of responding to the serious human rights issue of internal displacement. Through our work we have been able to place the issue on the international agenda, to develop international standards for IDPs, to provide sustained support to governments to develop and implement these standards, to mobilize civil society to protect IDPs, to work with the UN in mainstreaming IDP issues, and to improve the lives of those who have been displaced. There are many challenges ahead, particularly on issues related to the ‘responsibility to protect,’ but the Project serves as a model for human rights advocacy.


[1] For an analysis of the development of the project, see Thomas G. Weiss and David A. Korn, Internal Dispalcement: Conceptualization and its consequences, New York: Routledge, 2006.

[2] Institute for Southern Studies, One Year After Katrina, September 2006.