Up Close and from the Tower: Two Views of Refugee and Internally Displaced Populations

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

September 2, 2009

Review Essay
On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today. Michael Agier (Polity Press, 2008).
The Refugee in International Society: Between Sovereigns. Emma Haddad (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The numbers are startling. There are close to 40 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world today, uprooted by conflict and human rights violations. Although conflicts within states have declined since the 1990s,[1] the number of forcibly displaced people has risen. At least 26 million people are internally displaced while refugees under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have increased to 11.4 million.[2] There are in addition 3 to 4 million Palestinian refugees.

The problems facing the refugees and IDPs are daunting. The Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons has repeatedly reminded the international community that, “Forced displacement is not a passing event in people’s lives. It is a devastating transformation.”[3] From one day to the next, families lose their homes and livelihoods and are forced to leave behind all they had cherished. Deprived of life’s essentials, in particular shelter, food, medicine, education, community, and livelihood, they face marginalization, discrimination and often abject poverty. Persons uprooted from their homes also suffer higher rates of mortality than the general population, being more vulnerable to physical attack, sexual assault, abduction and disease.

Displacement is also devastating to countries. Entire communities, even entire regions in a country may be depopulated, resulting in damage to farmland, cultivation patterns, basic infrastructure, and community organization.[4] In areas to which the displaced flee, damage to the environment can be extensive when forests and grasslands are stripped to satisfy needs for housing and fuel. In urban centers, incoming populations place severe strains on infrastructure and services, while displaced children often have so little access to education that entire generations grow up without basic skills.

Although displacement is often thought of as a temporary phenomenon, most displacement situations are prolonged. Between half and three quarters of all major refugee and IDP situations last 5 to 10 years or more, whether the displaced are in camps or in urban centers.[5] The result is often marginalization and poverty for the displaced. In Europe and Central Asia, for example, a World Bank study found that those displaced for more than 10 years were poorer, and had higher unemployment rates, fewer material assets and less access to land than those who were not displaced.[6] When large numbers of refugees and IDPs remain in camps for long periods, they often experience insecurity and violence as the camps become militarized and susceptible to attack, as in Darfur and Gaza.

Against this background, Michel Agier’s book, On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today, should be seen as a ‘cri de coeur.’ After visiting Somali refugees on the Kenya-Somalia border, Colombian IDPs destitute in cities, and other “dehumanized” populations at the “outer limits of life,” this French anthropologist, refreshingly unschooled in refugee concepts and bureaucratic jargon, lets forth a powerful and emotional expression of outrage. His intent is to sound an “alarm call” for the public at large about the millions of people “left behind and excluded” from the world’s “distribution of goods, spaces and powers.”

His anger, while generalized, also focuses on specific areas of concern, which governments and international organizations would do well to heed. The first is the hopelessness of camp life where people are kept alive but have little or nothing to do. He acknowledges that over the decades, efforts have been made to set up income generating projects and to find small agricultural plots for displaced people to farm, or that refugees manage to obtain temporary work permits or show their resourcefulness by setting up market stalls, tea shops, and other services. But economic profitability in all these endeavors, the author emphasizes, is for the most part “accidental.” The theory of “sustainable development” does not extend to refugees and IDPs, who instead experience “a lasting and separate non-development.” The camps are but “a place of waiting apart from society” for people who are the “residue” of wars. “For how long can this persist?” he asks.

Agier seems unaware of the efforts underway to remedy the problems he raises. The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), for example, has been in the forefront of promoting international awareness about the “warehousing” of refugees who languish in camps or segregated settlements for more than five years, dependent on the international community for survival with their rights to employment, education and movement restricted or denied.[7] In the case of IDPs, the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons has been trying to find solutions to protracted situations where IDPs find themselves without employment, land, property restitution, or permanent shelter.[8] Agier’s book in many respects reinforces their efforts by promoting the need for greater integration of refugees and IDPs in host communities rather than putting hopes on return or resettlement, which may never come about. This of course will require the involvement of international financial and development institutions, greater international burden sharing and a development oriented approach to displacement, which is long overdue.

A second major concern Agier raises is the problematic relationship of aid workers to refugees. UNHCR may have “an aura of benevolence” back home, Agier observes, but in the field its staff are often feared and distrusted by refugees because of the “power” they wield and the lack of accountability when they commit offenses. He highlights cases where UN and NGO staff have abused children and sexually exploited displaced women and girls. Certainly it is shocking to witness the insensitivity and even hostility of some aid workers to refugees and IDPs. [9] But the author completely ignores the other side of the equation, namely the dedication and hard work of so many aid workers who risk their health and even their lives to bring protection and assistance to displaced people.

UNHCR’s delegation of protection and assistance activities to outsiders is questioned by Agier as exacerbating the relationship of aid workers and refugees. In one African country he found an NGO agent of UNHCR knocking down refugees, insulting others and refusing to provide plastic sheets to refugees whom he claimed already had them. But is it the local hire that is the problem, or rather the lack of oversight by UNHCR of staff entrusted with the welfare and security of refugees? Too often senior staff remain in capitals where they do not closely monitor the treatment of refugees in the field.

A third concern the author raises is that refugees are “without a voice.” Yet in many refugee settings, committees are set up so that refugees can express their views. The main problem is that their voices are not listened to. Aid workers too often rationalize that they have to work quickly and “know better” or express fears they will be taken advantage of by refugees’ demands. But as Agier points out, not consulting with beneficiaries reinforces their status as “victims” rather than active participants in the policies and programs that affect their lives. Consultation does more than that. Recent studies have found that consultation makes programs and plans for displaced people more sustainable, averts discontent and violence, promotes an environment of greater trust with the local population, reinforces peace processes, and even jumpstarts the recovery of local economies. [10] The scale of displacement in many countries, moreover, makes it unrealistic to plan for a stable and peaceful future without involving uprooted people in the discussions.

Agier largely portrays refugees and IDPs as “victims,” but their experiences can also be empowering. Emma Haddad’s new book, The Refugee in International Society: Between Sovereigns, points out that identification as a refugee can enable particular groups to form or maintain an identity. They then can use their refugee identity to “pursue their own agendas and interests.” For example, refugees may avoid integration in host societies in order to keep up the pressure for repatriation to their homelands. IDPs may do the same. In Georgia, those displaced from Abkhazia have relegated integration to a secondary position in order not to weaken their political goal of returning and reclaiming areas lost by conflict. For this reason they have been called “the Palestinians of the South Caucasus.”[11] While holding children and grandchildren hostage to political goals may not be the wisest course of action, it does show that refugee and IDP populations are not always passive victims. Agier himself acknowledges that the Twa refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo developed their own associations, distributed rations and sat on camp committees, obtaining a level of recognition that they never achieved in Rwanda.

Because camp situations present opportunities, Agier recommends their transformation into sites of “social life and political expression.” He suggests taking “testimony” from the displaced so that they can tell their stories and transform their experiences into a statement of positive value that benefits the world at large and also allows the refugees to feel more worthwhile than mere recipients of aid. Discussions and political action are also recommended by the author, but he goes too far when he describes the IDP occupation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia as an “apprenticeship in politics.” While protests are important means of eliciting attention and producing results, occupations of humanitarian organizations can disrupt their work, hurt the very people the organizations are trying to help and reinforce negative attitudes toward displaced people. It would be far better to require the setting up of consultation mechanisms in refugee and IDP settings with formal complaints procedures so that grievances can be heard and dealt with before protests become essential. The displaced, Agier rightly points out, should have more choices than dependency or illegal action to get attention from the world.

That refugee situations will continue to need attention indefinitely is the point of Haddad’s scholarly study. This Oxford academic makes the case that refugees are “an inevitable if unintended consequence of the international state system” and will therefore always be part of the contemporary world. Although others have contended that poor governance is the cause of refugee flows, she insists that the continuation of the modern nation state system will ensure the constant flow of refugees. “As long as there are political borders constructing separate states and creating clear definitions of insiders and outsiders, there will be refugees.” She is right in assuming that some 200 states will not all behave in compliance with international standards, but it is also true that good governance can reduce forced migration, if not end it entirely.

Haddad presses for international acceptance of the “inevitability of refugee flows” so that refugees will no longer be perceived as a “temporary” problem. She points out that all the refugee agencies created prior to UNHCR had limited mandates, and even UNHCR’s constitution has to be renewed every five years. Objecting to scholars who portray the refugee issue “as a purely recent, post-Cold War phenomenon,” the author demonstrates persuasively that the refugee problem is not a “contemporary” one emerging from nowhere, but longstanding. One could well challenge her, however, over when contemporary refugee movements began. Haddad does not consider the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in the 14th or 15th century or the forced departure of French Huguenots from France in the 17th century as examples of modern refugee movements. For her, the concept of the modern refugee did not consolidate until the inter-war period when efforts at “regulation and international cooperation” began and the numbers threatened to overwhelm host countries. But she strains to make these inter-war efforts seem substantial. In fact, they constituted a near absolute failure to save millions of European refugees, a detail that does not seem to diminish her insistence that they mark the beginning of the refugee regime.

Coming at the problem from a historical perspective, Haddad sees an evolution in thinking about the refugee and also some progress in how refugees are treated by the international community. Her book sharply contrasts with Agier’s finding that the refugee system is largely failing its beneficiaries. Of course Haddad’s book is a theoretical and historical account of how refugee problems have been dealt with over the centuries whereas Agier has written a personal and journalistic account of what he saw when he visited certain refugee and IDP settings. Although Haddad rejects what she calls a “bias” in refugee studies toward policy analysis and empirical case studies, her book might have benefited from some real life experience and some feeling for the plight of her fellow human beings. From her academic tower, she can actually write sentences like “Extermination was undesirable, but so was another mass influx of Jewish refugees” to explain inter-war attitudes in which she equates the horrors of Nazism with the responses to it.

As an introduction for students and academics interested in the development of the refugee concept, the book will stand. But policymakers will find it difficult to wade through its pages. The author agonizes too much over concepts (for example, “At this point we therefore face three options: to revise the criteria of the concept to preserve its point; to revise the point of the concept to preserve its criteria; or to ‘leave the criteria, the point and the theory within which the concept is embedded…’”) And she tends to hammer home themes as if preparing students for a final exam in which they will be expected to repeat her mantras. Yet the study is meticulously researched, and provides at times an insightful and erudite historical summary of the refugee’s position in the international state system.

That the 1951 definition of the refugee — based on a well founded fear of persecution — is restrictive and hardly reflective of the refugee experience is an issue to which Haddad devotes considerable time. To her, this Eurocentric, highly politicized Cold War definition is hardly the “major watershed” many make it out to be. She even comes up with a new definition to reflect the fact that refugee flows are caused by both political and economic events often inextricably linked and that the distinction between voluntary and involuntary movements is not always clear. But she does not extensively address two of the major changes currently taking place in the field of forced migration – the rising number of persons being uprooted by natural disasters and climate change and the rising number of people displaced internally. Both are clearly dwarfing the refugee experience and even challenging its conceptual base.

Floods, hurricanes, droughts, cyclones and landslides have become more frequent and severe and are predicted to displace even more than the tens of millions of people already uprooted by conflict and human rights violations. Longer-term environmental problems, such as desertification, rising sea levels, extreme temperatures and land degradation are also compelling people from their homes — albeit more slowly. Although many will become displaced within their own countries, others will cross borders, especially people in disappearing countries. Conceptual and institutional clarity are clearly needed, as reflected in debates over whether there should be a category of ‘environmental refugee’ or ‘environmental migrant’ and whether UNHCR should be the agency to provide such persons with protection.[12] The fact that many people flee for a combination of reasons adds to the complexity.

In the case of internally displaced persons, Haddad herself poses the question of whether the definition of refugee should be expanded to provide international protection to IDPs. Unlike other refugee specialists,[13] she is refreshingly receptive to acknowledging the similarities between refugees and IDPs and speaks of the “false dichotomy” between granting refugee status to individuals fleeing across borders from conflict but not to those who remain inside. There are of course good reasons for having separate legal regimes for refugees and IDPs. The internally displaced are citizens of their own country with the same rights as other citizens whereas refugees are outside their countries in need of substitute international protection. That IDPs may also need international protection because their governments discriminate against them does not take away from the fact that they are entitled to basic rights in their countries whereas refugees have lesser rights in host countries, dependent on the extent to which host governments implement their obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Haddad supports the continued conceptual and legal distinction between refugees and IDPs because of the central role that sovereignty plays in the international system. But she omits that operationally it makes little sense to draw distinctions between refugees and IDPs. In many conflict situations, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations find themselves compelled to assist both groups since they are intertwined with one another. Their status also is often interchangeable in situations of shifting boundaries; moreover, IDPs are potential refugees while returning refugees too often become IDPs. That their situations are similar prompted the UK’s former Secretary of State for International Development to ask after visiting Darfur and Chad: “Is it really sensible that we have different systems for dealing with people fleeing their homes dependent on whether they happen to have crossed an international border?”[14] In deference to this reality, UNHCR in 2006 enlarged its role with IDPs, agreeing to serve as lead coordinator for their protection in the field. A Georgetown University study has gone even further and proposed the creation of a high commissioner for forced migrants to ensure that IDPs do not become an “after-thought” in a refugee agency.[15]

Of course greater involvement with IDPs reflects changing notions of sovereignty, which in time could further erode Haddad’s argument about borders. She herself admits the diminishing importance of state boundaries as the concept of humanitarian intervention gains ground. But as the defender of the realpolitik of refugee protection, she reminds the reader over and over again that “the right of entry into a state remains the domain of state sovereignty.” That the human rights regime and the responsibility to protect (R2P) might in time have profound impact on the workings of the refugee regime is not something she is willing to entertain.

At the same time, Haddad works hard to reconcile the cornerstones of refugee protection — the right to seek asylum and be protected from refoulement — with protecting people inside their own countries. While some argue that IDP protection is but another pretext for containing refugee flows,[16] the author clearly appreciates that most people can not leave their countries and that efforts to protect only those who can make it across the border will hardly be an effective response when large numbers are at risk inside. Because refugee flows can destabilize regions, she sees nothing wrong with humanitarian action inside countries.

Haddad also works to reconcile the growing inhospitality to asylum seekers, especially in Europe, with measures to take the burden off Europe, such as “temporary protection” and “regional protection” measures. In the latter case, she seems pleased that the European Union plans to equip states closer to the refugees to receive them and promote solutions for them. In her view, these measures could replace emphasis on “control” mechanisms. But they could also reduce the rights of refugees and expose them to danger. Haddad herself acknowledges that the theory of regional protection will have to be backed up by some case studies.

The overall problem of forced migration of course goes beyond the humanitarian and human rights solutions. In fact, if one were to start afresh and design an international system to address the world’s humanitarian emergencies and the millions of uprooted people they produce, far greater attention would have to be paid to preventive measures and to multilateral political efforts to resolve the crises and inequities at the heart of displacement. In the meantime, humanitarian organizations will have to continue to press states to act according to refugee, humanitarian and human rights standards and work harder to ensure that refugees and IDPs receive better treatment. As Haddad reminds us, concepts of prevention, sovereignty as responsibility and the responsibility to protect remain far ahead of international willingness and capacity to enforce them.

This is a pre-publication draft of this article. The final published version is available from the International Studies Review.

[1] See Human Security Report Project, Human Security Brief 2007, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, p. 7.

[2] For refugee statistics, see UNHCR, 2007 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, June 2008, p. 2; for IDP statistics, see Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2007, April 2008, p.13.

[3] Kalin, Walter (2008) “Strengthening the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons,” Statement to Oslo Conference on Ten Years of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: Achievements and Future Challenges, 16 October 2008, available at

[4] Cohen, Roberta and Francis M. Deng (1998) Masses in Flight: the Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 23-26.

[5] Ferris, Elizabeth (2007) “Durable Solutions for Protracted IDP Situations,” background paper prepared for the expert seminar on Protracted Internal Displacement, UNCHR/ Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June, p. 7.

[6] Holtzman, Steven B., and Taies Nezam (2004) Living in Limbo, No. 20697. Washington DC: World Bank.

[7] Smith, Merrill “Warehousing Refugees,” World Refugee Survey 2004, p.38.

[8] See United Nations, Reports of the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Mr. Walter Kalin: Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/71/Add. 4; Mission to Serbia and Montenegro, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/71/Add.5; and Mission to Azerbaijan, UN Doc. A/HRC/8/6/Add.2. See also Ferris, Elizabeth, “Durable Solutions for Protracted IDP Situations,” supra note 5.

[9] See for example, Cohen, Roberta (2000) “’What’s so Terrible about Rape’ and Other Attitudes at the United Nations?” SAIS Review, Johns Hopkins University.

[10] See, for example, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement (2008) Moving Beyond Rhetoric: Consultations and Participation with Populations Displaced by Conflict or Natural Disasters, October; Cohen, Roberta (2008) Listening to the Voices of the Displaced: Lessons Learned, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, September; Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement (2007) Addressing Internal Displacement in Peace Processes, Peace Agreements and Peace-Building, September; and Vincent, Marc and Birgitte Refslund Sorensen (2001), eds., Caught Between Borders: Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced. London: Pluto Press.

[11] Interview of author with UNHCR official, Tbilisi, 8 May 2000.

[12] See Stavropoulou, Maria (2008) “Drowned in Definitions?” Forced Migration Review, No. 31, October, p.12; and Cohen, Roberta (2009) “For Disaster IDPs: An Institutional Gap,” Forced Migration Review, No. 32, pp. 58-60..

[13] See for example Hathaway, James (2007) “Forced Migration Studies: Could We Agree Just to ‘Date’?” Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, September, pp. 349-369.

[14] Benn, Hilary (2004) Statement before the Overseas Development Institute, London, 15 December.

[15] See Martin, Susan F. et al. (2005) The Uprooted: Improving Humanitarian Responses to Forced Migration. New York: Lexington Books, pp. 120-123.

[16] See, for example, Contat-Hickel, Marguerite (2001) “Protection of Internally Displaced Persons Affected by Armed Conflict: Concept and Challenges,” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 83, no. 843, September, pp. 699-711.