The Return of Refugees and IDPs and Sustainable Peace

Khalid Koser
Khalid Koser Executive Director - Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund

February 10, 2008

In this brief presentation I’d like to cover five main topics. First I’ll say a few words about the main differences between refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), as I’ve been asked to cover both in my talk. Second I’ll provide a quick overview of contemporary dimensions and dynamics of displacement and return. Third I’d like to explain why durable solutions for the displaced are often inextricably linked to achieving sustainable peace in post-conflict settings. Fourth I’ll outline some of the key challenges confronting returnees and policies for overcoming them. Finally I’ll indicate where I think the main responsibilities lie in supporting durable solutions and building peace, with a particular focus on the role of the UN Peacebuilding Commission.


Rather than talk at length about the definition on one hand of a refugee and on the other of an IDP, I thought instead it would be useful simply to highlight some of the critical differences between the two categories. One critical difference concerns the causes for flight for each category. As stipulated in the 1951 Convention in Refugees, refugees are essentially defined as people fleeing the threat of persecution. According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, in contrast, IDPs flee not just persecution and conflict, but also natural and man-made disasters and the effects of the development projects. The IDP definition is therefore much wider than the refugee definition. Another fundamental difference is that refugees have crossed internationally-recognized state borders, whereas IDPs have not. Furthermore whereas the refugee definition is a legal category, laid down in an international convention, the IDP definition is descriptive – it has no legal standing.

For the purposes of this presentation, one of the most important implications of these differences is that it can be far harder to discern when displacement comes to an end for IDPs than for refugees. It is fairly easy to say when refugees stop being refugees – either they can cross back over an international border to their country of origin, or their legal status can be rescinded, or their status can be transferred to another status, such as citizen. But IDPs have not crossed a border, have no legal status, and are already citizens of the country where they are displaced.

Dimensions and dynamics

There are around 10 million refugees worldwide. Their numbers have increased slightly in recent years, but the total nevertheless represents a significant reduction from just a decade ago. Significant refugee repatriations in recent years have taken place from Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guinea, Congo and Uganda. There are about 24 million IDPs worldwide, and this number is only for those displaced by the effects of conflict. There have been significant returns in recent years in Sudan, Lebanon, DRC, Uganda and Israel.

The displacement-peace nexus

Resolving displacement is often inextricably linked with achieving sustainable peace, for a number of reasons: Most fundamentally, IDPs and returning refugees – like all other war-affected civilians – have rights grounded in international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and states have an obligation to protect those rights. Numbers also matter: In one quarter of the countries currently in conflict, over five percent of the population is internally displaced. There are over one million IDPs in Colombia, the DRC, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. In countries such as these the sheer scale of displacement makes it simply unrealistic to plan for the peaceful future of the country without incorporating the needs of the displaced and ensuring their active participation.

Helping displaced populations to return and reintegrate can simultaneously address the root causes of a conflict and help prevent further displacement. For example, the return of displaced populations can be an important signifier of peace and the end of conflict, and can play an important part in validating the post-conflict political order. The return of displaced populations can be a pre-condition for peace if they are politically active. And the return of displaced populations can make an important contribution to the recovery of local economies. In some countries, furthermore, IDPs and refugees have become parties to the conflict, and their inclusion is therefore necessary for conflict-resolution.

Including displaced populations at an early stage in a peace processes can initiate momentum for them to be active participants in post-conflict peace-building. More widely, broad-based civil society participation in political processes – including peace – is increasingly seen as good practice. A variety of UN and other international conventions and agreements recognizes the rights of children, youth and women to participate in political processes that affect their lives.

Key challenges


Creating or maintaining an environment that is safe enough for displaced persons to return to their homes and places of origin is an important task of peace-building efforts. In many countries coming out of an armed conflict, landmines and unexploded ordnance pose a significant obstacle to the safety of returnees, to reconstruction efforts and to the development of economic activities. The presence of armed groups may create a serious obstacle to return and may be considered as a threat by potential returnees. Where impunity prevails, durable solutions for displaced persons are not possible and such impunity may create new tensions. Often, the safety of displaced persons and returnees can be threatened by criminal elements among the local population or by returning combatants who have been demobilized but have not successfully reintegrated into civilian life. In this case, return will not take place or will not be sustainable without the presence of law enforcement agencies in areas of return.


Tensions between local communities and displaced persons are often related to disputes over resources and property. Lack of reconstruction of destroyed houses or non-return of property left behind – taken over by either the local population or persons who themselves have been displaced – create serious obstacles to return. Female heads of household, orphans or unaccompanied children may face particular problems recovering property. The situation of certain minorities or indigenous peoples can be especially problematic, especially when they were holding traditional but informal titles not recognized by the authorities. The judiciary may be overburdened or otherwise unable to solve property disputes.

The following measures may contribute to reducing property disputes and thus stabilizing peace: Registering land left behind by displaced persons and updating or creating land registries; taking appropriate legal measures to recognize property rights of women and orphans; formalizing informal forms of property traditionally held by minorities or other vulnerable groups and restoring collective forms of property to indigenous peoples; establishing administrative mechanisms to handle large numbers of property disputes or to provide compensation for damage; establishing efficient law enforcement mechanisms to enforce orders to vacate and restore to its lawful owner property belonging to displaced persons and returnees; and developing transparent and equitable alternatives if the restitution of property involves the eviction of other displaced persons.

Reconciliation and transitional justice

In certain situations, displaced persons cannot return to their places of origin and homes or their return is not sustainable because they are not welcomed by local communities and encounter discrimination or even acts of violence. Inter-communal and intra-communal tensions over access to land and water may further exacerbate IDPs’ and returnees’ fear for their physical safety and lead to further outbreaks of violent clashes. Robust steps aimed at reconciling communities and restoring justice should be considered. Mechanisms of reconciliation and transitional justice should be without prejudice to displaced persons’ rights to restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.

Post-conflict reconstruction

In many post-conflict situations the creation of adequate economic, social and political conditions to make return for displaced persons sustainable remains a huge challenge. When there are not any schools or even the most basic health services, people will prefer to remain in the areas to which they fled. Where basic infrastructure such as water, roads or electricity is destroyed, economic activities may be impossible. Limited access to employment and other forms of livelihood is another major factor deterring people from returning; pre-displacement patterns of discrimination based on ethnicity, political affiliation and gender add to the difficulties returnees face in accessing already strained labor markets. The absence of or high interest rates for micro-credit and bank loans make it difficult to restart businesses or to bridge the time until agricultural land is productive again. In order to make return sustainable and thus to stabilize the situation, it is important to closely coordinate and combine humanitarian assistance for returnees with recovery and development efforts from the outset, instead of planning these activities as consecutive phases.

Political transitions

The process of peace-building requires the establishment of a functioning legitimate government, which usually involves setting up a transitional administration, referenda on a constitution, elections, and activities to ensure that the context in which elections take place is conducive to full participation of the population. In post-conflict situations, political participation can effectively contribute to peace, recovery and long-term development. Thus, taking seriously political rights, including the right to vote and take part in elections and referenda, is highly relevant to societies trying to emerge from conflict and build a more stable and prosperous future. Protecting the civil and political rights of displaced people – the right to vote, to freedom of assembly and association, and of expression – allows displaced persons to play an active role in shaping their own future and that of their nation.

Roles and responsibilities

National governments

The principal responsibility for providing security; addressing property issues; promoting reconciliation and transitional justice; reconstruction; and political transition – indeed for implementing and monitoring peace-building as a whole – lies clearly with national governments. Governments have obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect the rights of all citizens – including IDPs and returning refugees. Some of the critical roles national governments can play in this regard include: establishing the rule of law; developing legal and security institutions; supporting civil society; attracting private sector investment and establishing National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).


NHRIs have multiple roles that can contribute to protecting IDPs in post-conflict situations: they contribute to the formulation of policy; review legislation to ensure that it is in line with international human rights standards; assist victims in seeking legal redress; and contribute to the development of human rights jurisprudence. Their activities are also often geared towards ensuring compliance with international norms and rules; developing national action plans for human rights protection; investigating complaints; referring human rights cases to courts; participating in legal proceedings; and reporting on human rights issues. Peace agreements in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Sudan have all included recommendations on the establishment of NHRIs, although in many cases they have not had sufficient capacity to function effectively, and IDPs are rarely explicitly part of their mandate.

International community

The international community – mainly in the form of the UN – has often been criticized for its heavy-handed approach to peace-building, and in particular for its failure to engage with and encourage the role of national governments and local civil society. As a result a more nuanced understanding of the role of the international community has emerged. It has been suggested, for example, that functions that it is appropriate for the international community to fulfill are as an enforcer of existing agreements and resolutions; as a monitor of the implementation of existing agreements; as a mediator and broker between different parties; and as a guarantor. At the same time many UN agencies also continue to fulfill more operational functions in post-conflict contexts.

Civil society

Increasingly certain peace-making, humanitarian and peace-building tasks are being delegated by states and intergovernmental organizations to NGOs and other civil society actors. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recognized the assistance that NGOs and civil society can provide for UN peacebuilding efforts, although he equally stressed that ‘…governments are central…’ to peace-building. In other words civil society is seen as complementing – not replacing – the activities of national governments and the international community.

NGOs have comparative advantages over other actors in the peace-building process which make them potentially a particular significant actor for mainstreaming internal displacement issues. They tend to have an unrivalled familiarity with local conflict environments and close contacts with grassroots movements. They are often in a unique position to gather information pertaining to human rights abuses. They tend to have the flexibility, expertise, rapid responses and commitments at the local level to respond to emerging signs of trouble. Through transnational networks they can also provide a link between local level populations and global civil society.

The UN Peacebuilding Commission

The Peacebuilding Commission is just one component of the international community, which is in itself just one part of a range of actors involved in peace-building. Furthermore, over one year after it began its work, the Peacebuilding Commission has been criticized: for having a limited country focus, for being led by the agenda of national authorities, and for having quickly become politicized.

Nevertheless, the Peacebuilding Commission represents a unique institutional opportunity to mainstream IDPs and returning refugees and their priorities in peace-building efforts worldwide. First, the mandate of the Peacebuilding Commission is broadly to support the development of integrated strategies for post-conflict peace-building. Second, with representatives from the major UN charter bodies the Peacebuilding Commission reflects a broad and representative UN constituency. Additional members include representatives from the main troop-contributing nations and the major funders of peace operations. The inclusion of all major actors with a stake in the success peace-building gives the Peacebuilding Commission significant legitimacy. Third, despite its lack of direct operational capacity, the Commission is tasked with providing recommendations and information to improve the coordination of all relevant actors within and outside the UN. It is therefore in a position to become an important advocate, catalyst, forum and monitor for ensuring that the UN system addresses the needs of displaced persons in the broader context of peace-building.

Thank you for listening. I welcome your questions and comments.