Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

August 3, 2009


At the beginning of 2009, the number of persons internally displaced as a result of armed conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations across the world stood at approximately 26 million.[1] Reported returns of about 2.6 million people in 2008, particularly in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Timor-Leste, Uganda and Yemen, were outweighed by the new internal displacement of about 4.6 million people during the same period. New internal displacement was reported mainly from the Philippines (600,000 persons), the Sudan (550,000), Kenya (500,000), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (at least 400,000), Iraq (360,000), Pakistan (over 310,000), Somalia (300,000), Colombia (270,000), Sri Lanka (230,000), India (over 220,000) and Georgia (128,000).

The first half of 2009 has seen more internal displacement, particularly in Sri Lanka, with almost 300,000 persons displaced during the course of the Sri Lankan army’s operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and in Pakistan with up to 2 million persons [2] displaced in the context of armed operations against Taliban militants in the north-west of the country. New internal displacement linked to generalized violence, conflict and in some cases also serious violations of international humanitarian law were reported from a number of other places, including (in alphabetical order) the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Occupied Palestinian Territory [3], the Philippines, Somalia and the Sudan.

The Representative is concerned about the situations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in protracted displacement, where the process to find durable solutions has stalled and the displaced are marginalized by disregard for or failure to protect their human rights, in particular economic, social and cultural rights. At present, some 35 countries have significant numbers of internally displaced persons living in protracted situations.[4] The phenomenon affects Europe in particular, where 99 per cent of the continent’s 2.5 million IDPs fled their homes some 15-35 years ago as a result of conflicts arising from rejected independence claims, activities of armed non-State actors and territorial disputes.

In addition to those displaced by conflict and violence, an estimated 36 million persons were displaced in 2008 worldwide as a result of natural disasters, but reliable figures do not exist in the absence of an agreed methodology and global system to record displacement that is not related to conflict.

In many cases, internal displacement is not inevitable, but States fail to protect persons in their countries with due diligence from the consequences of armed conflict, natural hazards or violence carried out by armed non-State actors. In some cases, arbitrary displacement also results from a failure of State actors to scrupulously respect human rights and international humanitarian law and related impunity for individual perpetrators. Persons facing multiple, intersecting layers of discrimination are often particularly vulnerable to arbitrary displacement and it is no coincidence that ethnic minorities, and in some countries, indigenous peoples, are among the main groups affected by internal displacement.

IDPs often face serious protection challenges. Attacks on IDP sites and individual IDPs, including sexual violence, and the forced recruitment of displaced children into armed groups, are among the most serious concerns. Other challenges may appear less grave, but can still impose considerable hardship on IDPs. For instance, legal requirements with regard to documentation or residence that may be acceptable for non-displaced persons often create insurmountable obstacles for IDPs and cut off their access to key goods and services guaranteed by human rights, such as health, education, property, participating in public affairs, etc.

The Representative is encouraged by the fact that an increasing number of States are deciding to address the challenges of internal displacement through specific laws and policies. Regional organizations are increasingly pressing member States to adopt such laws and policies, which is another positive trend. The development in Africa is particularly noteworthy. The member States of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region have already adopted a Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, which entered into force in June 2008 and, with the accession of the Sudan, has nine State parties. The African Union plans to hold a Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and internally displaced persons in Africa, where heads of State and Government gathered in Kampala, from 18-23 October 2009, will hopefully adopt the African Union Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons in Africa. In Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recently adopted its important resolution 1877 (2009) entitled “Europe’s forgotten people: protecting the human rights of long-term displaced persons”.[5]

[1] The figures in this paragraph are according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Internal displacement: global overview of trends and developments in 2008 (April 2009), p. 9. They are also available at:
[2] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Pakistan situation report, 17 July 2009.
[3] See the Representative’s contribution to the combined report of nine special procedures pursuant to resolution S-9/1 (2009) on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (A/HRC/10/22), paras. 80-88.
[4] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, idem.
[5] Provisional edition available at: