UN humanitarian agencies estimate there are more than 20 million internally displaced persons worldwide, but until recently they attracted far less international attention than people officially designated refugees. But the plight of the internally displaced was given a rare high-profile forum in the UN Security Council yesterday.
New York, 14 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- They occupy converted railroad cars in Azerbaijan, muddy camps in Ingushetia, and overcrowded compounds in Kabul.
Internally displaced persons, or IDPs as they are known by aid officials, are people who have not left their countries but have been uprooted from their homes, mainly due to civil strife. They constitute a growing concern of international aid agencies but aiding them poses a more difficult challenge than refugees, who often can receive aid more directly beyond their native borders.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, who is currently president of the Security Council, arranged for a public debate in the council yesterday to draw attention to internally displaced persons and try to come up with better ways to address the problem.
The session began with an appeal by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sadako Ogata, to the council to act to stop the wars which were aggravating the refugee and IDP problem in Africa. More than half of the world's internally displaced people are in Africa and the continent received special attention at yesterday's meeting.
But experts say the issues worldwide are similar for IDPs. They cite the need to work more strenuously for conflict prevention, to set up lead agencies among the array of relief groups serving IDPs, and to make sure countries allow outside relief groups to address IDP problems within their borders.
Ogata told reporters that typically numbers of internally displaced people swell when there are major secessionist movements.
"Think of Yugoslavia. Think of Kosovo. Think of the North Caucasus. That is a work of, strictly speaking, IDPs, which are in countries where there is a strong secessionist movement or independence movement."
International refugee experts who gave a briefing to reporters at the United Nations yesterday stressed that most of the world's displaced persons were getting aid in some form from relief groups. But they say the lingering problems of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons throughout Africa and in countries such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Afghanistan require a more concerted effort.
A Brookings Institution expert on the plight of displaced persons, Roberta Cohen, applauded Holbrooke and the Security Council for publicly placing the issue on their agenda.
"They've decided that there really is an issue here and that it's not just a human rights or humanitarian issue but one with political and strategical ramifications and belongs in the Security Council."
Cohen said international agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and numerous NGOs play an important role that sometimes becomes "very unpredictable, very ad hoc." She said when a severe situation develops involving displaced persons, the international community needs to come up with a way to create a focal point for coordinating all aid into the affected area.
A senior advisor on displaced persons for the UN Humanitarian Office, Thomas Linde, said this kind of coordinating effort would be complicated by the specific problems unique to each trouble spot.
"Internally displaced persons in Serbia have a completely different profile with regard to needs, with regard to needs for protection and assistance, than, say, internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
Another difficulty noted by Cohen and Linde was the reluctance or inability of some governments to allow outside aid agencies to help displaced people. Linde said a worst-case scenario for aiding uprooted populations was Somalia in the early 1990s, when there was a disintegration of governing structures.
And Cohen singled out Turkey and Burma as places which have failed to cooperate with international agencies trying to help internally displaced persons. She said in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, where at one point more than 200,000 people fled to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, there was at least an ability to conduct a dialogue on aid with Russian officials.
"With all the horror of that situation, you do have international organizations at least with negotiations and something is going on to try to do something and apparently, on the ground, there is some movement in that regard."
Cohen said some of the more high-profile human rights dramas of recent years received attention because countries were willing to allow aid groups in. There are still a number of countries, she said, where the extent of suffering of displaced people is unknown because repressive governments have failed to cooperate.