Protracted Displacement in Europe

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

June 24, 2009

President of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Madame Chairperson of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population,
Distinguished Members,

It is an honor and privilege for me to be invited to this distinguished Assembly. Since assuming my mandate I have cooperated with the Council of Europe in fruitful ways and a variety of contexts. Recently, I particularly appreciated the participation and excellent contributions of many members of this Assembly to the Seminar on Protracted Displacement in Europe that took place in Geneva on 26 November of last year.

Unfortunately, over the last years, the situation of internal displacement in Europe has continued to remain stagnant. Europe continues to have more than 2.5 million internally displaced persons, mainly in the Central Caucasus, Turkey, the Balkans and Cyprus. What is perhaps even more worrying: Over 99% of them find themselves in situations of protracted displacement having fled their homes some 15 to 25 years ago as a result of conflicts arising from rejected independence claims and territorial disputes.

Beyond these staggering numbers are individual human tragedies. Memories of some of those who I met during my visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia still touch me. I still see before my eyes the Roma families living in corroded containers next to a city dump six years after they fled Kosovo and one woman showing me the hole through which the rats entered during the night. I remember the farmer somewhere in Bosnia who had returned to an area where he belongs to a minority, dreaming 12 years after the Dayton agreement about being able, one day in the future, to buy a second cow, allowing him to make just a little bit of money. The memories of marginalized children with sad faces, somewhere in Georgia, who never knew anything else than the one dirty room in an overcrowded collective shelter without electricity, or the furor of the traumatized woman in Azerbaijan desperately wanting to know the fate of her missing son and cursing her own fate still haunt me. Totally inadequate housing conditions, abject poverty, and worst of all, a life at the very margins of society without any hope and perspective are the everyday reality of internally displaced persons in Europe who have been living in such protracted displacement for many years or even decades.


I would like to commend the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population and in particular the Rapporteur, Mr. John Greenway, for bringing to the open what it calls very fittingly “Europe’s Forgotten People”. The excellent report on ”protecting the rights of long-term displaced persons” will help to mobilize public attention and muster political will to address their plight. The report and the recommendations touch on the key issues and concerns that I also continue to document in the course of my work on the continent. Let me highlight a few particularly pertinent points also addressed in the report.

Many of the protracted situations in Europe are the consequence of armed conflicts that had been marked by inter-ethnic violence or even ethnic cleansing. In some of these situations, internally displaced person became manipulated as political pawns. In the absence of a political settlement to the underlying conflicts, durable solutions and even temporary integration of IDPs were in some cases deliberately discouraged. In other cases, the reality of internal displacement was simply denied. Temporary housing arrangements, segregated schools or limited access to education for IDP children as well as economic and social marginalization are among the immediate consequences. Sometimes, the living conditions of these people are worse than at the time and the immediate aftermath of the conflict when humanitarian assistance was available.

Addressing this political problem requires political will on two fronts:

  1. As the Draft Recommendation before the Assembly highlights member states need to “seek new political impetus for finding peaceful settlement of the protracted conflicts.” In this process, the voices of internally displaced persons, including those of women and members of marginalized groups, need to be heard and peace agreements should address the rights, needs and interests of internally displaced persons. My mandate has been focusing on how to tackle the problem that IDPs are often not involved in peace processes or that they become the object of political manipulation. Those of you involved in peace negotiations may be interested in a soon-to-be-published Guide for Mediators on Integrating Internal Displacement in Peace Processes and Peace Agreements that my mandate, the Brookings-Berne Project on Internal Displacement, the United States Institute for Peace and the Mediation Support Unit of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs have developed.
  2. Even in the absence of peace agreements, much can be done to improve the situation of internally displaced persons. In particular, it is important to accept that, just because they have been displaced, they do not loose their right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their residence as guaranteed by Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights. This means that internally displaced persons have a right to return to their homes, but they also have the right to choose a different type of durable solutions for themselves, namely to integrate locally where they are or settle elsewhere in the country. Insisting on their citizens’ rights to return should not prevent governments from facilitating other durable solutions especially if it is apparent that the political realities preclude returns in the foreseeable future. Allowing IDPs to integrate locally and resume normal lives and the right to return are not mutually exclusive and a displaced person’s decision to locally integrate must never be viewed as a renunciation of the right to return. Rather, successful local integration can avoid protracted displacement and dependency syndromes and prepare IDPs for an eventual successful return. Moreover, in all situations there are particularly vulnerable people such as traumatized or elderly persons without family support who will be unable to return even where returns are politically feasible.

I have been stressing the importance of a free choice among durable solutions for a long time with several member states. It is simply shocking that in a continent as advanced as Europe ten and more years after the end of conflicts an estimated 390 000 internally displaced persons are still living in collective centres and similar types of accommodation. I am disturbed by the fact that this all too often happens as a result of deliberate policies. It is important to insist on the right of return and on undoing ethnic cleansing and similar practices but too many of those remaining in these shelters are very vulnerable persons not able to return and live on their own. It is a simple requirement of humanity to provide them with opportunities to stay in dignity where they are. It is very encouraging that after so many years a number of states confronted with protracted displacement, including Georgia and to some extent Azerbaijan have started to change their policy paradigm and pay more attention to local integration.

Protracted displacement is characterized by the fact that

  1. the process for finding durable solutions has become stalled, but also
  2. that the displaced are marginalized by disregard for or failure to protect their human rights, in particular economic, social and cultural rights.

Poor housing, lack of employment opportunities and the absence of access to quality education are typically the dominant concerns both during protracted displacement and after return. While resources often are scarce in the post-conflict transition phase, IDPs suffer disproportionately since they have to compete for these resources from a marginalized position. Particular difficulties stem from the fact that displacement often marks for IDPs the beginning of a rural to urban transition. As a result, IDPs often find themselves among the urban poor facing the additional problem of social and sometimes also legal discrimination because of their displacement.

Protection of property left behind and, ultimately its restitution or compensation, are often ignored, hindering IDPs in their efforts to resume their lives and remaining a serious source of grievance and a trigger-point for future conflict. In Europe, many people are tenants and it is therefore very appropriate and important that the Draft Recommendation before the Assembly also stresses the protection of tenancy rights. The strict application of requirements for legal documentation, coupled with failure to replace or issue new documentation, prevents IDPs in some countries from accessing and enjoying a range of rights: to health, education, property, a livelihood – and that often years after their initial displacement.

IDPs subject to multiple and intersecting layers of discrimination face a level of problems and protection concerns not experienced by other IDPs. Ethnic minority groups not linked to a party involved in the conflict – such as the Roma – are often particularly affected. Donors and Government further fail to recognize vulnerabilities of marginalized groups in the recovery phase, e.g., by cutting funding for upgrading collective housing complexes, even though it is the most vulnerable such as the elderly or people with mental disabilities that tend to stay behind. Mental health issues, often rooted in conflict atrocities and exacerbated by the protracted nature of displacement, are frequently neglected and responses underfunded.


What can be done to improve the situation of internally displaced persons in Europe? The Draft Resolution in front of you contains a full action program that, if fully implemented, would radically change the fate of these forgotten people even in the absence of solutions for some of the frozen conflicts affecting our continent. What is needed is to review, enact and fully implement national laws, strategies and action plans that aim at restoring the human rights of people in internal displacement, in accordance with Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2006)06, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and binding human rights law as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, the European Social Charter, and other relevant instruments. Limited financial resources are not the main problem: My analysis of several countries has shown that inadequate laws and policies and a lack of capacity at the level of authorities coupled sometimes with a lack of political will are the main cause for the continuing suffering of Europe’s 2.5 million IDPs. In this context, I would like to bring to your attention a Manual for Law and Policymakers developed by my mandate, together with the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement and leading experts across the world that analyses in great detail what can and should be done to make relevant laws and policies compatible with human rights standards. You may find it useful in your national work

Let me conclude. I am looking forward to continue the fruitful cooperation between my office and the Council of Europe. In particular, I am looking forward to the efforts undertaken by the Committee of Ministers to follow-up on the important recommendation before this Assembly today, and I stand ready to support these efforts. The commitment of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to the cause of better protecting internally displaced persons is important. Your efforts can help ensure that protraction of displacement will become protection in displacement; that Europe’s internally displaced who are forgotten today are cared for tomorrow, and that, ultimately, Europe disappears from the world map of internal displacement.

Thank you