Let’s Not Forget About Internally Displaced Persons

Published on July 16, 2009 in Eurasianet

The world annually celebrates Refugee Day in late June, an event that helps raise awareness about the plight, courage, and resilience of the world’s refugees. By contrast, internally displaced persons have no day of their own. It is time for this discrepancy to change.

There is often little difference in the level of suffering experienced by refugees and IDPs. The only distinction between the two groups is that one — refugees — crosses an international border in attempting to flee hardship and danger, while the other — IDPs — moves inside the country where strife and/or socio-economic privation exists.

The difference between an IDP and a refugee is defined by international law. The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provides for the protection and welfare of refugees outside their country of origin in states party to the convention. Thus, to be considered a refugee, one must cross an international border. Since IDPs do not cross borders, they have been deprived of many of the rights granted to refugees under international law.

Throughout the Cold War era, the international community caved into the ideological proxy politics of the Western and the Communist blocs, and considered the problem of IDPs a sovereign issue to be dealt with internally. Even in the years following the end of the Cold War, the international community continued to treat IDPs as an internal problem. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly apparent that many displaced persons fleeing economic and political upheaval either have been unable to escape abroad, or have been prevented from crossing international borders. These people nevertheless were deserving of international protection in their countries of origin.

This realization eventually led to the drafting of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1988, which defines IDPs as “groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”

Unfortunately, Afghan IDPs have undergone every one of the above hardships over the past three decades. There are now more than 300,000 IDPs across Afghanistan, many of them living in deplorable conditions. Yet aid organizations have avoided setting up camps for the IDPs, fearing that more battle-affected people would flock to the camps for assistance. While this may be a legitimate concern, IDPs who are exposed to extreme danger in the restive south and east of Afghanistan deserve immediate assistance. Inaction is certain to encourage the Taliban and their criminal allies to recruit among the internally displaced people, who are desperate to ensure the basic survival of their families.

The story of Mohammad Azam Nawabi, an IDP in southern Afghanistan, is a prime example of the complex challenges facing IDPs. Nawabi recently told AlertNet, “We left our homes because of insecurity and now we are leaving this camp [Zherai Dasht camp, 25 kilometers south of Kandahar city] because of the same problem.” Another IDP, Sahib Jan, added, “There is no water, no health clinic, no doctor, no school, and no job for us in the camp. . . . How can people live here?”

It is common sense that most IDPs, like refugees, need protection from ongoing conflicts and deserve to live free from the fear of persecution. In Afghanistan’s case, a multitude of aid organizations possess resources, but lack the will to work with the Afghan government to ease the plight of IDPs. If local integration is the right solution, for example, IDP families must be assisted to settle legally, find jobs, and receive basic services such as clean water, electricity, education and healthcare. Or if return to their areas of origin is the best alternative, they must be helped to reintegrate on a sustainable basis in order to prevent their displacement again.

A former refugee, internally displaced person, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees field officer, M. Ashraf Haidari is the political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org