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Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Internally Displaced Persons

The Challenge of the New Millennium: Protecting the Internally Displaced

Debate over Institutional Responsibility

The plight of internally displaced persons dominated humanitarian debate throughout 2000. The year began with an impassioned statement by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke during a Security Council session on humanitarian assistance to displaced persons in Africa in January. Having recently returned from a trip to Angola, Holbrooke expressed dismay at the lack of an effective international response to the problem of internal displacement. He challenged the very distinction between a refugee and an internally displaced person (IDP) and made a controversial call for a single agency to take responsibility for providing protection to IDPs, citing UNHCR as the most appropriate choice.

Holbrooke's statements triggered a frenzied response within the U.N. system. While there was a general consensus that the existing system of responding to internal displacement crises was inadequate, there was widespread opposition to giving UNHCR lead agency responsibility for IDPs. To a certain extent, the debate turned into an ugly turf battle between rival U.N. agencies unwilling to yield more power and responsibility to UNHCR. But there were also more substantive reasons for the reservations to Holbrooke's proposals.

Refugee experts pointed out the dangers of collapsing the terms refugee and internally displaced person in legal and protection terms. Refugees, by definition, are unable, or unwilling, to avail themselves of the protection of their own country and have crossed an international border in search of protection. Governments have an obligation under international law to provide refugees with protection and UNHCR's mandate is to ensure that governments abide by these obligations. Internally displaced persons, on the other hand, remain, if only technically, under the protection of their own governments and do not automatically trigger an international response. Refugee advocates feared that UNHCR's involvement in providing in-country protection to internally displaced persons could provide an excuse for asylum countries to return refugees to their countries of origin. Indeed, Western European and other industrialized states were already denying asylum to refugees for whom they believed "internal flight alternatives" or "in-country" protection existed in their country of origin.

In a July 2000 address in New York, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata also expressed reservations about eroding the distinction between refugees and IDPs, because of the specific nature of protection required by each group. Ogata also criticized the international community for focusing too much on the question of the institutional response to internal displacement, and too little on the underlying political, economic and social root causes.

Despite Holbrooke's resolute support for a lead-agency model, the U.N. sided with a collaborative approach. A senior inter-agency network was established to review the U.N.'s response to situations of internal displacement, under the auspices of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and a special focal point on internal displacement was created in the U.N. secretariat.

Human Rights Watch: Focus on Protecting Internally Displaced Persons

While Human Rights Watch did not take a position on specific inter-agency responsibility for internally displaced persons, the organization continued to advocate for more consistent and effective protection for IDPs and for more active adherence by governments with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other human rights and humanitarian standards pertaining to the internally displaced. Human Rights Watch monitored and reported on a wide range of situations of internal displacement worldwide. These included longstanding situations of internal displacement, such as in Sri Lanka, Turkey and Colombia, as well as new displacement crises.

The escalation of the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea during May 2000 provoked massive displacements of both Eritreans and Ethiopians. Nearly 1.5 million Eritreans were uprooted by the conflict, including 90,000 who sought refuge in Sudan--more than a quarter of whom had returned to Eritrea by October 2000. In Angola, a new wave of internal displacement was sparked by the intense fighting following the governmental campaign launched in October 1999 to flush out UNITA from their traditional strongholds in the central highlands. More than 200,000 persons were displaced during the first half of 2000, and at the end of June, the total number of IDPs was estimated at 2.5 million. In Colombia, some 134,000 persons were displaced during the first part of 2000, most by paramilitaries as well as guerrillas and the armed forces, adding to the estimated total of 1.8 million IDPs and 80,000-105,000 refugees from Colombia in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama at the end of 1999.

The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) experienced a rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation from the start of the year, with fighting in the South and North Kivu areas resulting in major population displacements. By July 2000, a total of 1.6 million people were displaced in the DRC. In the Moluccan islands region of Indonesia, clashes between members of Muslim and Christian communities since early 1999 left three thousand or more people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands. In Russia, hundreds of thousands of Chechens remained displaced in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia following the conflict in Chechnya in 1999.

Human Rights Watch identified a wide variety of serious protection problems facing internally displaced persons worldwide.

Access to Safety Denied

Russian authorities continued to deny displaced Chechens access to safety in Ingushetia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation. On a number of occasions between October and December 1999, Russian forces fired on convoys of fleeing Chechen civilians resulting in scores of deaths and injuries. In October 1999, for example, at least eleven people were killed when a Russian tank fired on a bus carrying displaced persons near the Russian-controlled town of Chervlyonnaya. On October 29, a large civilian convoy, including Red Cross vehicles, was attacked outside Shaami-Yurt. Serious abuses, including widespread extortion, theft, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and in some cases rape, were common at the Russian check points. Young males were particularly targeted, discouraging many from trying to leave. Russian officials also repeatedly closed the borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia, Dagestan, Stavropol, and North Ossetia. In November 1999, for example, 40,000 civilians were stranded for days in heavy fighting when the Russian authorities closed the Ingush-Chechen border. In January 2000, the authorities announced that males between the ages of ten and sixty would not be allowed to leave Chechnya, although this policy was later retracted under international pressure.

In Sri Lanka, between May and July 2000, both the armed separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government imposed severe restrictions on IDPs trying to move out of areas under their control. This often meant that civilians were trapped in conflict zones and unable to flee.

Forced Round-ups and Relocation Programs

In other situations, government or rebel forces deliberately rounded-up civilians and held them in camp-like settlements. In Burundi, for example, 350,000 people had been forced into "regroupment" camps around the capital, Bujumbura, by January 2000 as part of the government's counter-insurgency program. Soldiers used force and threats to move civilians into the camps, killing and injuring dozens. Despite concerted pressure from the international community, including Nelson Mandela, it was not until June that the authorities began to systematically disband the camps. By October most of the camps around Bujumbura were closed, but officials continued using "temporary" regroupment to make it easier for soldiers to "cleanse" areas of rebels.

Restrictions on Freedom of Movement

Human Rights Watch reported on numerous situations where freedom of movement was obstructed and the movement of displaced persons manipulated by both government and rebel forces. In Aceh, Indonesian soldiers reportedly emptied IDP camps by force and prevented others from leaving their homes. Acehnese rebels, on the other hand, reportedly encouraged displacement, preventing displaced persons from staying with relatives and forcing them into large, more visible centralized camps. In Congo Brazzaville, rebel militia groups held displaced persons hostage in camps for much of 1999 and prevented them from returning to their homes. Government authorities also restricted the return of IDPs. In May 1999, the government facilitated a mass return of IDPs from their hiding places in the forests of southern Congo back to the capital with promises to guarantee their safety. Instead, soldiers at roadblocks raped and assaulted hundreds of women and girls, and extrajudicially executed scores of young men who were randomly accused of being rebels.

Lack of Access to Humanitarian Assistance

A serious problem facing internally displaced persons everywhere was lack of access to humanitarian assistance. Infant and maternal mortality and morbidity rates amongst IDPs were, as a result, some of the highest in the world. There were three main reasons for lack of humanitarian access:

First, in places such as Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Sri Lanka, Indonesia's Moluccan islands, and Angola, the extremely dangerous security conditions, lack of security guarantees, landmines, and inaccessibility of camps prevented humanitarian workers from having access to thousands of internally displaced persons. In the DRC, for example, the U.N. estimated that only one million of the 1.6 million IDPs had access to any humanitarian assistance due to the precarious security conditions in South Kivu. As a result, infant mortality rates amongst the displaced were the highest in the region and the maternal mortality rate was the highest in the world;

Second, were deliberate obstructions to the delivery of humanitarian assistance by government authorities or rebel forces, as in Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, the DRC, Sri Lanka, Aceh, Indonesia's Moluccan islands, and Chechnya. In Aceh, for example, Indonesian authorities in some cases tried to obstruct local NGOs and student groups in their efforts to assist IDPs through physical attacks, detention, torture, and harsh treatment of volunteers, destruction of volunteer posts, and seizure of medical supplies. In Burundi, soldiers occasionally blocked international agencies trying to bring assistance to the camps, and even when access was resumed many of the camps were inaccessible to relief agencies;

Third, humanitarian assistance was limited by inadequate international response and lack of coordination. In Angola, for example, a U.N. interagency mission in March 2000 concluded that there were serious gaps in the planning, delivery, and monitoring of humanitarian assistance. And in October 1999, the relief agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), decried the "unbearable silence of the international community" toward the "forgotten war" in Congo Brazzaville.

Forcible Return of Displaced Persons

Finally, Human Rights Watch reported on the forcible return of displaced persons to areas where their safety could not be guaranteed, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. In December 1999, for example, the Russian military compiled a list of twenty-four towns and village under Russian control designated as "safe areas" for IDP return. In a letter to the then prime minister Vladamir Putin, Human Rights Watch declared that while the armed conflict continued in Chechnya it was not safe for displaced persons to return. Documented cases of summary executions of civilians by Russian soldiers, as well as arbitrary arrests, looting, rape, beatings, and extortion in Russian-controlled villages were further evidence of this. Despite these protests, the Russian authorities took measures to forcibly return displaced persons. These included physically returning railway carriages housing displaced persons in Ingushetia to war zones in Chechnya, refusing to register displaced persons for assistance, and denial of food and shelter.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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