Putting it in Perspective: A Look at IDPs
Posted by Thuy-Anh Vo on Tue, Jun 05, 2012 at 10:15 am
While interning at HIAS, I have had the opportunity to attend a number of events concerning Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). An IDP is someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country’s borders; there are currently about 27 million people who have been internally displaced by conflict. Even though IDPs are just like refugees, they do not fall under the current legal definition of a “refugee” because they are not outside their country of origin. A small number of IDPs live in refugee camps, but most of them live with family members or friends or are dispersed within communities. Unfortunately, current policy has been insufficient in prioritizing ending displacement in the aftermath of conflict or natural disasters, and IDP issues are often neglected in diplomacy.
The IDP issue is a difficult one because it is multifaceted and calls for the United States government to think about the extent to which we should help others outside of our international legal obligations. At this point, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to IDPs by managing camps and overseeing shelter needs, but protecting IDPs is not in the UNHCR’s original mandate. Humanitarian aid and development programs need to work together to improve the lives of IDPs by offering sustainable assistance. Non-profit organizations and others are advocating for revising IDP policy to raise the awareness of IDP issues, increase the role of humanitarian aid, and expand staff training.
The IDP issue in countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan is complex, especially because dependency on assistance increases in the contexts of conflict and war. In Afghanistan, displacement has sky rocketed 80 percent as fighting spreads to new regions of the country. Colombia has the highest number of IDPs in the world, estimated at between 3.9 to 5.3 million. Yet, despite their presence, IDPs are invisible. IDPs and host communities suffer equally when it comes to lack of employment, poor infrastructure, and social services.
After reflecting on these speakers and events, I was astounded at the fact that there is no legal right to flee conflict, oppressive situations, or natural disasters. It is not a ground for refugee status. To be a refugee, there needs to be a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Many IDPs are minorities, be it religious, political, or ethnic, but they are unable to obtain refugee status because they are not specifically targeted. Rather, they are vulnerable individuals affected by war and generalized violence. This was hard for me to believe: Shouldn’t every individual have a right to be in a safe place?