Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Dealing with those displaced by war or violence

By Dennis McNamara

LONDON: Last week some 150 Afghans, mainly children, displaced by the drought and prolonged war there, reportedly froze to death in a camp near the Iranian border. In Burundi, up to 15 percent of the population have been uprooted in a lingering internal conflict.

In Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Angola together, several million people have been uprooted by wars that have raged for decades. Some families have been displaced for three generations.

Up to 25 million people in over 40 countries have been forced by war or violence to flee their homes within their own countries. Half of the world's displaced populations are in Africa. Unlike refugees, they have not crossed an international border and get much less attention, even though they outnumber refugees globally by at least two to one.

It is estimated that a similar number -- more than 20 million -- have been uprooted by natural disasters: floods, famines, earthquakes and droughts. If you include those displaced for economic reasons, the number of displaced people worldwide probably approaches 100 million.

The overall response remains woefully inadequate. There is no dedicated international agency or treaty to protect those uprooted within their own countries. They usually live with local communities or in makeshift settlements or slums, often on the fringes of ongoing conflicts, rather than in highly visible refugee camps across borders.

This relative obscurity often puts the displaced beyond the reach of aid agencies as well as the media.

In late 1999, the issue was put on the UN security council agenda and the secretary general agreed that this was a category deserving more attention.

There are two main obstacles to delivering more effective support: questions of sovereignty and safe access, and lack of international support and resources.

Many host countries are themselves implicated in the violence which caused the displacement. Efforts to increase international involvement are easily labeled as internal interference, particularly if they touch the highly sensitive issue of protection of the basic rights of displaced citizens.

Closely linked is the reluctance of many donor governments to provide seemingly endless humanitarian funds. The displaced are seen first as the responsibility of their own governments, many of whom continue to wage war, thus diluting the sense of international obligation.

These are the challenges facing the renewed UN effort to improve the international response to this major humanitarian problem. Agencies have also acknowledged the need to improve their own effectiveness in delivery, but they often lack the essential resources.

Meanwhile, millions suffer. As well as tragic humanitarian consequences, this has security and political implications too. Uprooted, unprotected and desperate citizens are easy prey for anti-government movements; they send a clear message to refugees not to come home; and they provide an unstable basis for any peace and development initiatives.

The writer is the UN special coordinator on internal displacement with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the UN.

-- Guardian News Service