The Enduring Search for Durable Solutions

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

May 14, 2002

I am very pleased to join Sylvain Ngung of the Organization of African Unity and Guenet Guebre-Christos of UNHCR on this panel on African refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Special thanks must go to Dr. Tsehaye Teferra and the Ethiopian Community Development Council for convening this eighth national conference and bringing together refugee advocates from all parts of the United States to focus on Africa. This conference has become an important event in stimulating better refugee policies and programs, in particular with regard to Africa.

As you know, my work concentrates on internally displaced persons – those forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries by conflict and human rights violations. According to a recent report of the Global IDP Database, the African continent has more IDPs than the rest of the world put together. The number of IDPs in Africa during the second half of 2001 was more than 13 million out of a worldwide total of about 25 million. This number has been steadily increasing over the past 3-4 years, mainly because of protracted and brutal conflicts, in particular in the Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone.

The impact, it should be underscored, extends well beyond the actual persons affected. Conflict and displacement disrupt whole communities and societies. Indeed, the areas left behind by the displaced suffer depopulation and neglect. The areas to which the displaced flee suffer damage as well. In Rwanda, the World Bank estimates that the destruction done to national parts and forests will have long-term economic effects. In Angola and Liberia, there has been an overloading of urban infrastructure, quickening its deterioration. Few African countries can afford such destruction. Ten of the African countries with significant internally displaced populations are among the thirty poorest countries in the world.

Conflict and displacement also spill over borders into neighboring countries. The Great Lakes region of Africa is a good example of how conflict and displacement in one country can inflame the situation in others. Similarly in the Horn of Africa and West Africa, conflict and internal displacement in one country have spilled over borders and helped destabilize neighboring countries.

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