The Displaced Fall Through the World’s Safety Net

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

February 6, 1997

Hundreds of young women in camps for internally displaced persons in Sierra Leone were recently reported to have been forcibly subjected to female genital mutilation. The case – shocking in and of itself – is only one example among many of the dangers to which internally displaced persons are exposed owing to the lack of an international system of protection and assistance similar to that extended to refugees.

Had the Sierra Leoneons crossed a border they would have become refugees, entitled under international law to the protection and assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In Ethiopia in 1993, UNHCR took steps to protect Somali refugee girls from genital mutilation. But the young women in Sierra Leone were internally displaced. They remained within the borders of their own country, with no protection from their government and with no international agency to turn to.

Since the end of the cold war internal displacement has taken on epidemic proportions, mainly because of the proliferation of civil conflicts. Some 25 to 30 million persons worldwide are estimated currently to be internally displaced. In recognition of this fact, in 1992 UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali appointed former Sudanese diplomat Francis M. Deng to serve as his representative for the internally displaced. Since then Mr. Deng has visited a dozen countries, worked to codify international legal norms applicable to the internally displaced, and acted as a catalyst for international action on the issue.

The major international humanitarian, development, and human rights agencies have put internal displacement on their agenda and have begun to look for ways to deal with the massive problems it poses.

An inadequate response

Yet the response has been largely ad hoc – the various agencies picking and choosing situations of internal displacement in which they wish to become involved. Their focus, moreover, has been on providing relief – food, shelter, and medical attention – leading to characterizations of many Bosnians, Kurds, and Rwandans as the “well fed dead.” Protecting the physical safety and fundamental human rights of the internally displaced is considered by many international agencies to be outside their mandates. UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross are exceptions, but these organizations often are not present.

The vast majority of the internally displaced are women and children, and it is they who are most heavily affected by the absence of consistent international protection. Sexual violence against women in Bosnia and Rwanda has received wide publicity, but internally displaced women have been subjected to widespread violence in other countries as well. An inter-agency UN mission to Liberia in 1993 found that many internally displaced women had suffered rape and mental and physical trauma.

Single agency impractical

Given today’s political climate, setting up a single agency to protect and assist the internally displaced, on the model of UNHCR’s aid for refugees, is not a realistic option. It might also not be the ideal solution. It would duplicate many capacities of existing organizations, and it would arouse opposition from governments that fear international oversight.

What is needed – and what those concerned with the issue are currently striving to create – is an international system that assures that no major case of internal displacement goes neglected. At a minimum, a central coordinating mechanism is needed to trigger international action by rapidly assigning responsibility to existing agencies. In support of this system, UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and other agencies should carve out specific areas of expertise so that they don’t have to be asked each time to play a role. And the UN’s human rights system should be brought in to increase protection. When internally displaced persons are huddled in camps without the protection and assistance of their government, the response should be automatic.

The late James Grant, head of UNICEF, once pointed out that “refugees can expect UNHCR to be on the scene in a matter of days or on the outside, a matter of weeks … to provide shelter, food, and a package of basic services…. This is not yet the case with respect to internally displaced populations.” With characteristic foresight, he was calling for the minimum safety net established by the world for refugees to be extended to the internally displaced. The incidents in Sierra Leone show how right he was – and why such action is more needed today than ever.