No protection for 'displaced' Masses taking flight within their own nations is the newest global crisis

August 09, 1998|By Roberta Cohen and Francis M. Deng

Tens of millions of people have been forced from their homes during the past decade by armed conflict, internal strife and systematic violations of human rights, all the while remaining within the borders of their own countries.

No continent has been spared.

Africa today counts about 10 million internally displaced persons, Europe and Asia some 5 million each, and Latin America up to 2 million. These masses in flight - who, unlike refugees, have not crossed a border - constitute the newest global crisis.

Internal displacement always has severe humanitarian implications. These displaced persons are at the greatest risk of starvation, have the highest rates of preventable disease and are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Internal displacement is a symptom of state dysfunction that poses a threat to political and economic stability at the national and international levels. Both the communities left behind and the towns and villages in which the displaced find refuge are often ravaged.

In some cases, so many people flee that whole societies are uprooted. Violence and instability can spread through entire regions, forcing neighboring states to bear the brunt of massive refugee flows. Even countries continents away might have to contend with a wave of desperate refugees.

Today's crisis of internal displacement is no less acute than the refugee crisis that confronted Europe after World War II. Then, humanitarian needs coupled with practical political and economic interests brought about a system of international protection and assistance for those displaced outside their native countries.

In 1951, the position of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was created and a U.N. refugee convention adopted. Today, UNHCR has a staff of 5,000, an annual budget of more than $1 billion, and 13.2 million refugees in its care.

But those forced from their homes who remain under their government's jurisdiction are not covered by any international arrangements. Although their numbers exceed those of refugees, no international institution is specifically charged with their protection or assistance. The absurdity is that if these people had crossed a border, they would fall under U.N. protection.

Internal displacement became a subject of international concern in the late 1980s. When the numbers were first compiled in 1982, 1.2 million people were estimated to be displaced in 11 countries. Four years later, the total had grown to 14 million. Since the early 1990s, the numbers have fluctuated between 20 million and 25 million in 35 to 40 countries.

The major reason for this dramatic increase was the rise in internal conflicts as the Cold War came to a close. The proxy wars the superpowers fought in the 1980s displaced millions of people who came into full view only as Cold War tensions eased in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and El Salvador. The arms that the United States and the Soviet Union had supplied to regimes or opposition movements furnished the weaponry for the ethnic and clan warfare that broke out once the superpowers departed.

Liberia and Somalia, two countries that plunged into civil war, were among the largest recipients of U.S. military assistance in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s. In Europe and Central Asia, the collapse of the Soviet Union lifted the lid on nationalist aspirations and ethnic rivalries that displaced millions more.

Elsewhere, vast disparities in wealth, land ownership and power have been at the root of conflict. In Rwanda and Burundi, high population density and limited fertile land exacerbated tensions

between Hutus and Tutsis. In Colombia, conflict over land has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

In other cases, struggles between governments and minorities have produced mass displacement. In Sudan, which has the world's largest internally displaced population, the efforts of successive northern governments to impose Islam on the black African south have made 4 million people homeless.

In Turkey, which has the second-largest displaced population, government repression against the Kurdish minority has sent 2 million people fleeing for their lives.

The 1990s have seen greater willingness on the part of the international community to intervene in these situations, even without the consent of the government concerned. A major motivation has been the desire to forestall international flows of refugees.

As the number of refugees has grown, Western governments as well as those in Africa and elsewhere have become less welcoming to those in flight. Their focus has shifted to keeping people in their homelands. The U.N. Security Council justified the international community's precedent-setting intervention on behalf of the Kurds in Iraq in 1991 on the grounds that massive flows of refugees threatened international peace and security.

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