According to the United States Committee for Refugees, there are about 15 million refugees worldwide. An even larger number of people throughout the world have also been driven from their homes by conflict or disaster, but are not considered refugees because they have not left their home countries. Advocates for this latter group, called "Internally Displaced Persons," are trying to raise public awareness of their plight.
Advocates for Internally Displaced Persons, or IDP's, say there's almost no difference between an IDP and a refugee. But, because a refugee is one who has crossed an international border, he or she is often protected and helped by international laws and aid organizations. An IDP often gets little, if any assistance.
Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Bartram Brown says it is often difficult for outside organizations to assist IDP's.
"States don't have to accept [intervention]," he said. "They can invoke sovereignty and say, 'No, this is an internal matter. International institutions can not come in here and tell us what to do.' " At a daylong conference at Chicago-Kent College, legal scholars and human rights activists were among those discussing the plight of IDP's and what might be done to help them. Marc Sommers of the African Studies Center at Boston University says it is difficult to say how many IDP's there are in the world. Often, they are hiding from one or both sides in a civil conflict, and their governments often do not want them attracting outside attention. "Governments do not want to talk about IDP's because it exposes their weakness as a state," he said.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees says Sudan, Angola, Colombia and Congo-Kinshasa have the most IDP's an estimated 12 million among the four nations.
International human rights law professor Doug Cassel of Northwestern University in Chicago says, in many cases, governments are powerless to help their IDP's.
"Even if the government of Colombia had a strong will to protect the IDP's in Colombia," he said, "its efforts would be widely thwarted as they now are by paramilitaries and guerillas."
This conference was organized by the Washington-based human rights group Pax International. It was created last year for the purpose of raising awareness of IDP's and trying to find a better way to assist them. Larry Ekin is Pax International's president.
"We believe that an international convention or international treaty is appropriate in this case," he said. "It also gives us a way to begin talking about the issue to people."
But, Doug Cassel of Northwestern University says an international treaty would not help the world's 25 to 30 million IDP's anytime soon.
"Treaties, at best, are going to take a very long time to secure adoption and widespread ratification," he said. "And, an even longer time for effective enforcement."
Four years ago, the United Nations drew up a document called "Guiding Principles on International Displacement." It is a non-binding set of guidelines for governments and non-governmental organizations to use in their work to assist IDP's. Conference participants favored encouraging widespread adoption of the guidelines now, since an international treaty on IDP's is a long way off.
Pax International hopes to have similar conferences in other U.S. cities.