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On the Record

Statement before the World Food Programme Consultation on Humanitarian Issues

Roberta Cohen is Co-Director of the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement, Senior Adviser to the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and co-author with Francis M. Deng of Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement (Brookings, 1998).

First allow me to thank Mrs. Bertini and the staff of the World Food Programme for organizing this meeting on internal displacement. WFP has been a leader among international organizations in making the needs of the internally displaced one of its prime operational concerns.

Part of the problem in responding to the crisis of internal displacement has been the seemingly simple—but actually very difficult—one of gaining recognition by the international humanitarian, human rights and development communities that it is an urgent issue that merits top priority. Ways of thinking and working don’t change easily in established organizational structures. But recently it has become clear by the actions and policy statements of the concerned organizations, by the debates in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and by the statements in the UN Security Council that the worldwide problem of internal displacement has become “a priority.”

The international system set up after World War II took almost no account of the problem of internal displacement—despite the fact that that war created vast pockets of internally displaced persons. To be sure, the International Committee of the Red Cross was given a mandate to help protect victims of armed conflict. But in all other respects the system designed at the end of the second world war focused on refugees. It was intended to provide protection and assistance to persons who crossed borders. In keeping with traditional notions of sovereignty, those forcibly displaced within their own countries—albeit for much the same reasons as refugees—were excluded from organized systems of international protection and assistance.

This exclusion didn’t really begin to be challenged until the early 1990s, when the numbers of internally displaced persons swelled dramatically. In 1982, when a first count was made, 1.2 million people were estimated to be displaced in 11 countries. By 1997, the total had grown to more than 20 million persons in more than 40 countries, a figure substantially larger than the number of refugees. This exponential growth was largely the result of the epidemic of internal conflicts that broke out, or heated up, after the end of the cold war.

I’ve been asked to speak specifically about the causes of internal displacement and the special needs of the displaced. If one looks at the countries around the globe that are experiencing, or have recently experienced, serious problems of internal displacement, one finds basically three causes: conflict-induced displacement, disaster-induced displacement, and development-induced displacement.

Conflict-Induced Displacement

Conflict-induced displacement—in the main, civil war, but also conflict situations well short of civil war—has been by far the predominant cause and the most difficult for the international humanitarian community to deal with. Some of the worst civil wars of the past decade or so grew directly out of the cold war, or rather out of the end of the cold war, when the US and the USSR withdrew their support from client states and struggles for power ensued. The arms furnished earlier by the two superpowers fueled the horrific civil wars that swept Afghanistan, Liberia, Somalia and Angola and displaced millions. Other internal conflicts directly emanated from the demise of the Soviet Union. Soviet power and the communist system kept a tight lid on nationalist aspirations and ethnic rivalries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Following communism’s collapse, fierce struggles over political and territorial ascendancy erupted in the Caucasus and parts of Central Asia, as well as in the former Yugoslavia.

Other internal conflicts developed entirely independently of the cold war. But one element is common to almost all conflict-induced displacement: strife among rival ethnic groups, or between governments monopolized by or identified with one ethnic group pitted against marginalized minority groups. Even in situations in which the conflict appears to be over inequities of distribution of wealth and resources, ethnicity often plays a role since the affected underclasses often come from a particular ethnic or indigenous group.

When governments persecute and forcibly relocate ethnic groups or wage outright war against them, those displaced easily fall into, what Francis Deng calls, “a vacuum of responsibility” within the state. The governments concerned generally do not see the displaced as “their people” to be protected and assisted but rather as “the enemy.” The process of dehumanization that ensues creates a climate in which neglect of such persons and even atrocities against them become accepted as legitimate.

Internal conflicts in societies without governments follow a similar pattern. In the so-called failed states, insurgent groups and warlords from rival ethnic or tribal groups fight over land, resources, and control of territory. Some call these “wars for profit.” Civilians become the main targets because they are connected to or perceived to be connected with rival factions or simply because they occupy land and property coveted by others. Generally the insurgent groups accept almost no ground rules of battle. Stories of child soldiers, of amputations and mass rapes, of plunder of humanitarian assistance, and the kidnapping or killing of humanitarian workers frequently emanate from wars in dysfunctional states

International humanitarian agencies can alleviate a great deal of suffering in conflict-induced displacement, but the only durable remedy is political solutions—greater sharing of power, greater democratization, and more equitable distribution of national resources and opportunities. As these take time to establish, it must be expected that conflict-induced displacement will remain at a high level in the years ahead.

Disaster-Induced Displacement

If more than 20 million persons are forcibly displaced by conflict and severe human rights violations, another 20 to 30 million are estimated to be displaced by natural disasters. In most of these cases, the problem is temporary and geographically confined, and extensive protection issues or problems of consent do not arise. The magnitude of the disaster and the extent of resources available are the main difficulties.

Unlike those displaced by conflict, those uprooted by natural disasters would not be considered refugees if they crossed a border. There are, however, cases of natural disaster compounded by discrimination and abuse on ethnic and political grounds, and in these cases, international protection could well be needed. In Ethiopia, for example, in the mid-1980s, the Mengistu government, under the pretext of responding to famine, forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Tigreans it regarded as political opponents. Just the opposite is said to occur today in North Korea, where persons are reported to be punished if they flee from their homes in search of food as a result of the drought and famine.

Roberta Cohen

Former Brookings Expert

Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Development-Induced Displacement

Persons displaced by development projects have not generally been counted among those considered internally displaced. Nonetheless, this category could take on greater importance in the future. No one questions that economic development is to be welcomed, applauded and promoted. But it also has begun to be recognized that development projects can and do produce arbitrary displacement. I have just returned from a conference on internal displacement in Asia, a region where this particular problem appears most acute. Development projects that do not meet the standard of overriding public interest and which forcibly displace poor, indigenous and marginalized groups without consultation, respect for their human rights or the provision of adequate resettlement or compensation were a subject of much concern at that conference. It was pointed out that poorly designed and overly ambitious development projects could ultimately lead to conflict over land and resources, and thereby produce conflict-induced displacement. Effective international strategies and programs for dealing with this kind of displacement were repeatedly called for, in particular to promote compliance with World Bank and OECD guidelines.

The Special Needs of the Internally Displaced

In most situations, especially of conflict, internal displacement is a prima facie case of vulnerability. It breaks up the immediate family, separates people from their homes and community structures, terminates stable employment relationships, denies or limits people’s access to their land, ends formal educational opportunities, deprives children, expectant mothers, and the sick of access to food, adequate shelter or vital health services, and makes the displaced population especially vulnerable to acts of violence.

Nonetheless, questions often arise about whether the internally displaced should be identified as a special category. Indeed, this question has occasioned widespread and often heated debate within the international humanitarian community. One of the main objections advanced against considering the internally displaced a special category is that singling out this group will lead to discrimination against others. Would it not be better to address “situations” rather than categories of persons so that all those in need receive attention?

The fact of the matter is that internally displaced persons do have special needs that make them different from others in the general population. This is true whether they are in camps or railway cars, merge into urban slums or hide to avoid identification. Food is one of their most urgent needs because the internally displaced usually have limited, if any, access to land and may be more dependent on food assistance than others in the local population. Lack of documentation is another common characteristic of the internally displaced. It limits their access to health care and education and other governmental services, and makes them more vulnerable to roundups, forced conscription and sexual assaults. The fact of the matter is that internally displaced persons do have special needs that make them different from others in the general population. This is true whether they are in camps or railway cars, merge into urban slums or hide to avoid identification. Food is one of their most urgent needs because the internally displaced usually have limited, if any, access to land and may be more dependent on food assistance than others in the local population. Lack of documentation is another common characteristic of the internally displaced. It limits their access to health care and education and other governmental services, and makes them more vulnerable to roundups, forced conscription and sexual assaults. In the case of internally displaced women, in particular single unaccompanied women or female heads of household, their vulnerability both to violence and food insecurity has been well documented.

Internally displaced children, especially those separated from their families, are the group most at risk. In addition to often lacking shelter, proper food and health care, they have to forego formal education, and are often exposed to conscription into armed forces and to sexual abuse. As the Director of Operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross recently wrote: “it goes without saying that, deprived of shelter and their habitual sources of food, water, medicine and money,” internally displaced persons “have different, and often more urgent, material needs.”

The purpose of identifying these needs is not to confer on the internally displaced a privileged status but to ensure that in a given situation these needs are addressed along with those of others. Regrettably, this frequently has not been the case. There is considerable discrepancy, for example, in the way the international community perceives and treats refugees (or returning refugees) and internally displaced persons, even when they face similar problems and sometimes are in virtually the same circumstances.

In war situations as well, where the needs of the internally displaced may seem largely indistinguishable from others who are war affected, there may still be important differences, in particular the need for shelter. There are also cases in wartime where the internally displaced have been forcibly placed into areas where the local population is hostile to them. Death rates for the internally displaced have been found to be substantially higher than for non-displaced populations. In periods of return and reintegration too, they may have special protection problems.

Sensitivity to the needs of the internally displaced, however, should never translate into operational programs that discriminate against others. Indeed, approaches that target all members of the community or affected population may be the most practical and effective means of reaching the internally displaced. What is essential is that such comprehensive programs heed the distinct protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced; otherwise these programs will prove inequitable when it comes to the internally displaced.

In concluding, I should simply like to emphasize that displacement disrupts not only the lives of the individuals and families concerned but whole communities and societies. It has, what has been called, a “multiplier” effect.

Both the areas left behind and the areas to which the displaced flee suffer extensive damage. Entire patterns of community life and socioeconomic frameworks collectively break down. Conflict and displacement also rarely remain contained within borders. When left unaddressed, they spill over into neighboring countries and also upset regional stability. That is why, Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently wrote, there is “a compelling need for the international community to strengthen its support for national efforts to assist and protect displaced populations.” Indeed, let us help make the 21st century the one that develops more effective ways of dealing with populations under threat in their own countries.


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