The term "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) refers to persons who have been forced or obliged to flee their homes or places of habitual residence, but unlike refugees, remain within state borders. This crucial difference means they do not enjoy the same protection under international law as those with refugee status recieve, and in the past have received less attention from the international community as a group (official statitstics on their numbers globally only began in 1982). Unlike refugees, there is no specifically-mandated body to provide assistance to IDPs. However, the UN has begun to address these issues.
According to figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre
, in 2005, of the estimated 25 million IDPs, there were over 5 million located in Sudan and up to 3.7 million in Colombia. Globally, 70 - 80% of IPDs are women and children. However, statistics on IDPs are still a controversial issue, and there is as yet no universal agreement.
One of the reasons explaining the increase in this group of people and the parallel decrease in the number of refugees (approximately 9.2 million registered in 2006) has been the shift from conflicts between states, to a pattern of more internal strife and civil wars. Yet the causes for the displacement and the subsequent obstacles which IDPs face are much the same as those which relate to refugees. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (see last paragraph) cites the most common causes for displacement as being "a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters."
(Introduction, para. 2) Thousands of people are also recognised as being internally displaced each year due to major development projects(1)
Like refugees, the dispacement undergone makes IDPs particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses and neglect. However, those recognized as refugees, having crossed the state border, are generally better assisted than other forced migrants, in that they have a clear legal status and are entitled to the protection of the UNHCR. IDPs, like anyone else, benefit from the same legal protection of international human rights law and, in situations of armed conflict, international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions). However, ensuring these rights are secured is often the responsibility of authorities which were responsible for their displacement in the first place, or ones that are unable or unwilling to do so. Here the issue of state sovreignty becomes a problem, and in the past efforts to help certain groups of IDP have been restricted by a lack of security and governments or insurgents preventing access to the these people. In addition, programmes designed to help IDPs can sometimes complicate asylum procedures. (2)
However action is being coordinated in the UN and through other related organisations. The UNHCR report notes that the United Nations is "beginning to make discernible progress toward helping the internally displaced"(3)
, and in 2005 it was decided that the UN refugee agency would in future take a ‘lead’ role in overseeing the protection and shelter needs of IDPs. The UNHCR currently cares for 5.6 million people in the "IDP" cateogory. Also, in 1998, the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" was presented to the UN Comission on Human Rights by the Comission's representative on IDPs and a team of international legal experts. Officially translated into 40 diferrent languages, the 30 principles set out the rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of IDPs. (see further information, including International Bodies and Individual States responses)
Through the UN Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of IDPs and other related groups, increasing work is being done to research the issue of IDPs, to coordinate a global mandate to respond to the situation and to help individual countries to implement the Guiding Principles.
(1) The Forced Migration Online guide to Forced Migration (which describes the three main cateogories of displacement as "conflict-, development- and disaster-induced") notes that it is reported that on average, 10 million people a year are displaced by dam projects alone.
(2) During the Kosovo conflict, for instance, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia argued there was no need to allow displaced persons to cross a frontier to seek asylum because they were already receiving aid in their own country.(see page 14 in UN fact sheet - pdf format)
(3)(see press release)