Internally Displaced People: Vagabonds of Conflict

 An Overview of Selected Countries with a Significant Number of Armed Conflict-caused Internal Displacements: Crises, Trends and Probable Solutions
Aaron Laylo

This paper gives an overview of the internal displacement predicament as a global crisis. It also explores significant incidences of internal displacement in selected countries from various regions on levels and causes varying from but focusing on armed conflicts and political repression over guerilla or religious groups to human rights violations and the “negligence” of the international community, and other threats and vulnerabilities common to these homeless people. The paper aims and seeks to answer a very significant question addressing the dispossessed and displaced population’s plight and given the other realities behind this global crisis: Where have they gone?


 The Subject

They are people who run from one place to another, settle for a while, and run again to look for a place which, even for a short while, they can call “home.” They are left homeless because of almost endless military confrontations between the government and armed civilians. They are forced to move out of their comfort zones and be swayed to another soil within their state’s borders only to find themselves strangers in their own land. They are “orphans of conflict.”[i]

There are about 25 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were uprooted from their homes for the same reasons as refugees but have not crossed any international border. Considered the most vulnerable in their nation’s populations, their journey to find a place to call home where they could feel secure seems to be a very tiring one. They usually come from disadvantaged and poverty-stricken communities that are caught between the harshest of state and anti-state group confrontations.

The post-Cold War era saw the increasing number of these people in all continents of the world. Their plight has become a global crisis and continually poses great challenges for the international community to establish appropriate programs of actions that involve systems of humanitarian relief, aid and protection.

The paper seeks to follow the course of the internally displaced from being disadvantaged members of their state’s tearing society to becoming the “left behind” and continually experiencing the perennial plight where they have gotten wounded ankles, scratched skin, and weary bodies. More than the physical harms and injuries, simple lives are also getting torn into pieces in this trail of pain and constant struggles with armed conflict, dispossession and starvation.

The Paper

The paper seeks to understand the internal displacement predicament by initially identifying the internally displaced persons, their difference from the refugees and the causes of internal displacement. Also, a portion of the first section gives an overview of figures and trends in continents where internal displacement is prevalent.

The second part of this paper presents an overview of four selected significant cases of internal displacement from three countries and one continent. Each case offers a different situation and setting of conflict although all cases are bound to armed-conflict induced internal displacement.

The last part of the seminar paper presents critical analyses and arguments on the Guiding principles, protection of the internally displaced, sovereignty against external intervention, and responses to this predicament.

Delimitation, Scope, and Approach

While the paper generally presents an overview of the internal displacement crisis, it nonetheless narrows down to one particular cause-dimension only which is those generated by conflicts and internal violence. Such causes are the most common and apparent relative to the other causes such as political repressions, cultural, ethnic and religious rivalries and gaps, and natural disasters. The author of this paper aims to present via the cases used herein a partial and first round look on the reasons and causes behind intrastate conflicts and violence and the severity of the effects brought about by these actions. By doing so, this study, therefore also attempts to give the reader a wider view of the other windows of causes of the global crisis.

Given the problems brought about by internal conflicts and the linking factors associated with it, the next question is how the international community would respond to a naturally domestic problem. This brings the dilemma of national sovereignty versus external participation vis-à-vis human rights violations and the responsibilities of governments to respond to its population. This study attempts to present an analysis of such dilemma.

By nature, the problem of internal displacement is a national issue. It is assumed that such problem will be handled “independently” insofar as the government of the internally displaced can handle the increasing incidences of internal displacement. However, due to the significant number and correlated problems of internal displacement occurring within certain regions, it has also become a regional crisis as well. In the same way, collectively, it may be considered an international crisis given the significant number of internally displaced persons around the world. Indeed, although this phenomenon is naturally a national or domestic problem, its impact and effects have troubled the international community and even pose threat to neighboring states due to the possibility of refugee incidence if the problem will not be tamed sooner. Its impact on interstate relations associated with the issues of national sovereignty versus external participation, human rights violations versus humanitarian intervention and others simply makes it an interesting topic in geopolitics. Although the paper may depart slightly from the major points to be presented in this paper, the approach nonetheless would generally be in light of geopolitics.

Review of Related Literature

Presumably, relative to other international issues, the crisis of internal displacement is not so familiar to most countries. Ironically, even if it has already been considered a global crisis, the term internal displacement does not really ring a bell to many citizens of the world especially those whose countries enjoy a high quality of living. The problem of internal displacement to them seemed covered by other “more important” and relevant national issues that have direct impact to them politically, socially and economically. Even in countries where there are relatively less cases of internal displacement, this socio-political dilemma is usually left unnoticed, unpopular and really unfamiliar to common folks living in places miles away from the midpoints of conflict.

It is therefore the well-educated thinkers’ responsibility to slash the weeds of alienation to a certain problem challenging a larger uninformed mass. Hence, the bizarre issue of internal displacement has been continually studied and given attention by researchers and policymakers alike and bring it to the knowledge of the people.  

Most of the literature that were used for this study had been taken from published books available in the library. As the issue is not as salient and popular as other more familiar topics in international studies, only a few books about it have been used yet prolifically. The scarcity of published data has not become a hindrance in having a rich research for an online jungle offers scholars’ trails about the said topic. The most credible studies by equally credible authors and monitoring centers, however, have been considered above other data available online. This strategy for research has been undertaken to ensure an updated study of the topic. The most recent book used in this study, for instance, was published in 2004. Others were published in 1993 and 1998. It is but appropriate to rely on an updated monitoring available online. There are also very interesting stories and neo-perspectives from international authors and very reliable international organization sites catering to issues on refugees and internally displaced persons that may be drawn from the internet.

Prior to the initial recognition of the internal displacement predicament, the focus of attention was set on those displaced outside their respective countries. Laws, agreements and institutions were all consolidated into a complex network designed to protect those persons seeking asylum on the territory of a foreign land. They had been tagged refugees who are practically people seeking refuge. As the need for humanitarian action arose, the essential task of establishing an international body for the protection and assistance of refugees also began. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was put up in 1951 and a UN convention was adopted for the same purpose of protecting and assisting people forced out of their homes for various reasons. In the years that followed, there had been a broadening of the refugee concept. It progressively continued until the concern for the internally displaced and its differences from the refugees had been brought to the agenda of policymakers via the significant persistence of the enthusiasts of the said matter.

            In the early 1990s, organizations engaged with the issue of internal displacement began to draw attention to the fact that no document specific to internally displaced persons exists. Given this problem, an initial study of the then “new phenomenon” would require immense time and research to come up with a set of guiding principles on internally displaced persons. The Representative of the Secretary General, Francis Deng, was then requested by governments in the UN Commission on Human Rights to study if any existing international law addresses the needs of internally displaced persons as to develop an appropriate normative framework. In the course of the study, Deng examined human rights law and other relevant humanitarian law (which is actually applicable in situations of armed conflict) and refugee laws. He found that although considerable protection in existing international law for internally displaced persons exists, it was still necessary to fuse all the relevant provisions to address the blurry areas identified in the said law. He persevered on searching for other legal standards, mechanisms for enforcement, and other apt measures to improve the situation of the internally trapped.

            In 1993, Deng submitted to the UN Commission his report on the given task. Also that year, he published his book, Protecting the Dispossessed, A Challenge for the International Community. It reviews the state of the law and mechanisms of enforcement as well as the situation in the countries he visited where cases of internal displacement had become a prevalent problem. It also presents an analysis of internal displacement as an aspect of a wider crisis of nation building. Lastly, it offers recommendations about what the international community can do to address not only the symptoms represented by internal displacement but also the causes in the domestic conditions.

            Francis Deng may be considered an expert on internal displacement given his prolific studies on the said topic. The idea for his studies emerged from his discussions with various groups which are also deeply concerned with the idea of giving this topic enough attention and consideration for publication. Together with The Brookings Institution in collaboration with the Refugee Policy Group and another scholar in the field, Roberta Cohen, two studies have been conducted in pursuit of the concerned scientists’ project: the overview volume, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement and a volume of case studies, The Forsaken People. The first book is an in-depth examination of the overall problem of internal displacement. The second volume was prepared by leading experts with professional or academic expertise in the fields they discuss. A nice thing about the book is that the authors of the case studies given therein come from diverse backgrounds. It then makes the study multi-disciplinary in approach.

            I find it essential to consider a legal perspective and approach of the topic particularly within the framework of human rights as well as the legal protection of the internally displaced persons. The book entitled The International Protection of Internally Displaced Persons written by Catherine Phuong has been a reliable and useful one. It gives an analysis of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement set by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the role of the said organization regarding the protection and assistance of the internal displaced persons.

            As for the most recent and updated source, figures and quantitative data given by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre may be the best reliable ones to consider. Through its work, the Centre contributes to improving national and international capacities to protect and assist the millions of people around the globe who have been displaced within their own country as a result of conflicts or human rights violations. The Centre’s online IDP database provides comprehensive and frequently updated information and analysis on conflict-induced internal displacement around the globe. It is unique in being the only provider of comprehensive information on all situations of conflict-induced internal displacement worldwide.

The database features some 50 internal displacement profiles, each providing a brief overview, as well as more in-depth information and analysis on the respective IDP situation and its background. Thus, the database enables users to quickly acquire an understanding of IDP situations and their context at whatever level of detail and depth is required.

[i] I borrowed the term “orphans of conflict” from Donald Steinberg in his article “Orphans of Conflict: Caring for the Internally Displaced.”

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