US Policy toward Refugee/IDP Protection

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

May 10, 2006

INTRODUCTION — Congressman Smith, Representative Payne and Committee members, thank you for inviting me to address the Subcommittee on refugee protection issues. In his opening statement, Representative Payne underscored the link between refugees, who cross borders, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who remain uprooted inside their countries, both groups seeking safety from persecution, violence and human rights violations. He noted that in Africa, there is an alarming number of IDPs — 12 to 13 million — and called upon the United States to become more involved.

As an expert in the field of internal displacement, I would like to underscore that the phenomenon of forced migration involves both refugees and IDPs. Both groups are usually in the same destitute and deprived conditions, requiring international protection and assistance. One only has to look at the IDP camps in Darfur, Sudan and the refugee camps across the border in Chad to see the life threatening conditions both groups endure. Although refugees and IDPs have separate legal regimes, operationally it is important they be dealt with in a more holistic way. As the UK Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn put it after visiting Darfur, “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? I have my doubts.”1

The fluidity in the situations of the two groups is also noteworthy. Internally displaced persons are potential refugees. When IDPs find little or no protection at home they may try to cross borders. It is therefore not surprising that among those accepted for refugee resettlement in the United States are people who were internally displaced. In parts of the world where borders change as in the South Caucasus, the former Yugoslavia, and the Horn of Africa, one can be a refugee one day and an IDP the next. Moreover, when refugees return to their home countries, they easily can become internally displaced if there is an absence of security or sustainable conditions.

View complete testimony

Hilary Benn, Statement before the Overseas Development Institute, London, December 15, 2004.