Key Policy Debates in the Internal Displacement Field

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

December 4, 2006

The phenomenon of internal displacement is centuries old although the subject did not come onto the international agenda until the last decade of the twentieth century. Greater access at the end of the Cold War combined with an upsurge in numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) helped bring attention to the problem. Whereas in 1982, only 1.2 million IDPs were counted in eleven countries, by 1995, the number had soared to 20 to 25 million in more than 40 countries, almost twice the number of refugees.1 The destitute conditions of the displaced constituted not only a great humanitarian and human rights disaster, but as former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out, a political and security problem requiring international attention as well. Internal displacement was the cause of instability within states, and if left unaddressed could spill over borders and upset regional stability.2 A new international system, it was argued, needed to be created to promote protection for people uprooted within their own countries. The international refugee system set up after the Second World War applied only to those fleeing across borders from persecution and violence. An effective framework was needed for those uprooted and at risk within their own countries, especially since many governments did not have the capacity or willingness to help their uprooted populations.

Not surprisingly, in seeking to develop a new international regime to address a subject as complex as internal displacement, many points of discussion and disagreement arose. While some issues have been resolved, this article focuses on six major ongoing debates involving sovereignty, the IDP definition, the IDP category, the legal framework, institutional arrangements and IDP protection. It seeks to provide an overview of the field of internal displacement and the challenges confronting it.

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Cohen, R. & Deng, F.M. 1998, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, pp. 3, 32

Annan, K. 1998, Preface in Cohen & Deng, Masses in Flight, p. xix.