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UN Unable to Help Millions of Displaced People Who Fail to Qualify as 'Refugees' - 2003-06-15

The U.N. refugee agency is taking care of 12 million refugees worldwide, people who have fled from warfare or persecution at home. But there are 25 million internally displaced people around the world, people made homeless by conflict or oppression within their own countries. These IDPs, as they are called, often are not reached by organized humanitarian assistance.

The nature of war has changed since World War II. International conflicts largely have given way to civil wars, and the main casualties are civilians caught up in crossfire. Often civilians are deliberately targeted by the men with the guns, causing a dramatic growth in the number of people abandoning their homes and running for their lives.

On the surface, there appears to be very little difference between those who are internally displaced and those classed as refugees. The reasons for their flight are the same. But Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, says there is a vast difference between refugees who have crossed into another country and IDPs who have not.

"By crossing an international border, you then come under the whole international refugee regime which, in a sense, is designed to replace your national authority," he said. "The fact that your own police force, judiciary, etc. is not protecting you when you are in another country, whereas, when you are still inside your own country, other countries cannot directly help you, so the international regime does not function."

Jan de Wilde, Director of Program Support for the International Organization for Migration, says it often is very difficult to address the needs of internally displaced people because no single agency is set up to deal with them. "This whole category of internally displaced people tends to be forgotten," he said.

Mr. de Wilde says these people are often caught up in civil wars where neither side welcomes scrutiny from outside. "When their problems are really desperate and when they are able to generate, or should I say, attract international support generally, something gets put together to address their needs," he said. "But there is not an institutionalized way of assessing their needs and meeting them."

Assistance for IDPs tends to be improvised. Sometimes a U.N. humanitarian coordinator is able to designate various aid agencies such as the World Food Program or the U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, to provide help to those made homeless by civil war.

Two years ago, the United Nations set up a unit within the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in an effort to create a more organized approach to the IDP problem.

IDP Adviser Marc Vincent points out that only nine people work in the unit and there are 25 million IDPs in the world. But he says they can do a lot by mobilizing the many different agencies there are to help displaced people.

"I am speaking of all of the U.N. family and some 20 to 30 international NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are frequently involved in internally displaced humanitarian scenarios. ... So, there are lots of organizations that are working for the internally displaced," he said. "The difficulty becomes, of course, coordination and making sure that we are all working in the same direction."

Mr. Vincent says his unit cannot get involved in all of the world's more than 50 conflicts. It has to set priorities depending on the size of the conflict and the scale of needs. This year, for example, a key concern is to help the huge numbers of displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We also recognize that there is a role of prevention, so that we try and work with country teams in contingency planning and looking at how to avoid displacement before it becomes a serious problem," he said. "The unit plays a role in trying to figure out how do you enable countries to create the conditions where people can return safely and voluntarily and, of course, with dignity."

The International Organization for Migration runs programs of assistance and return and re-integration for the internally displaced in Afghanistan, Iraq and West African countries, among others. The UNHCR is involved in caring for IDPs in about a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia and Burundi.

U.N. refugee spokesman Rupert Colville says under international law, states are obliged to accept and assist refugees. But he says it is more difficult to force states to care for their own internally displaced.

"Of course, internally displaced people do have the option usually to become refugees, if they want to," he said. "And, there you have got a difficult dilemma, too. Very often it might be safer for them to become refugees and that is probably why many of them do become refugees. They cross that border and then all of a sudden they are refugees and they benefit from a whole range of measures that are not available to internally displaced people. On the other hand, why make people cross a border if they do not have to and if they do not particularly want to."

For years, governments have been talking about creating a new global agency to tackle the dilemma of internally displaced people. But governments are not eager to have an outside agency poking into their affairs. They also are less than enthusiastic about setting up yet another cumbersome, expensive bureaucracy.

So for the foreseeable future, aid agencies will continue as best they can in helping the millions of people who are forced to abandon their homes and run from fighting within their own borders.