Internally Displaced Persons: A Neglected Issue on the International Agenda

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

January 5, 2009


As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is timely to focus on international efforts to uphold the rights of those who have been forced to leave their homes and communities. This article will describe the evolution of human rights standards for internally displaced persons over the past decade and then discuss the challenges to the implementation of these standards in the future.

For more than 50 years, the international community has acknowledged its responsibility to protect people fleeing their countries in search of safety. In 1921 the League of Nations created a high commissioner for refugees to assist refugees in Europe, mainly from the USSR and Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of World War II and the massive needs of some 30 million displaced Europeans, the fledgling United Nations developed an international system to respond to refugees. The system included: a clear definition of who is a refugee, a convention prescribing the way in which refugees should be treated and an international agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with a mandate to protect and assist refugees.

Refugees were defined in the 1951 convention as those who: “as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. [1]

Over the years, the system for protecting and assisting refugees has evolved and expanded. Most notably the Convention itself was changed with the addition of the 1967 Protocol which expanded the geographical applicability of the Convention; originally intended to benefit only those displaced as a result of events in Europe, the Protocol made it applicable to people fleeing persecution throughout the whole world. The Convention, originally intended to meet the needs of individual victims of persecution was able to respond to situations of mass influxes of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing civil conflict. UNHCR, created for a three year period to meet what was perceived as a temporary need, saw its mandate renewed every few years and its field presence expanded to include most countries of the world.

But it is important to underscore that this international refugee regime was created in the context of the Cold War and was intended to protect victims of persecution – rather than civil conflict – by allowing them to find safety elsewhere. It has never been a perfect system. Although Article 14 of UDHR guarantees the right of all human beings to seek asylum in other countries, it is the responsibility of governments to determine who is allowed to enter their territory. The 1951 Refugee Convention has been applied in ways consistent with governmental foreign policies. Thus, in the United States, Cubans fleeing to Florida were considered to be refugees and given expedited access to residence and citizenship, while Haitians arriving on the same shores faced more restrictive processes and were often detained and deported.

In the 1980s the system came under strain as a result of a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking asylum in developed countries, particularly in Europe. Alarmed at this trend, European governments sought to deter the arrival of asylum-seekers by instituting visa requirements, sanctions against airlines transporting people without the proper documentation, detention of asylum-seekers and other punitive measures. UNHCR often found itself in the 1980s and 1990s challenging governments on human rights – often the same governments that provided the bulk of UNHCR’s funding.

Read the full article »

[1] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Adopted on 28 July 1951 by the United Nations Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons convened under the General Assembly resolution 429 (V) of 14 December 1950. Available at