Friday, April 18, 2008

Governments often cannot or will not assist millions of people displaced by violence

Millions of people have been uprooted from their homes because of violence or persecution. But not all displaced people are refugees. Villagers in Sudan's violent Darfur region who have fled to camps within Darfur are strictly speaking known as internally displaced people (IDPs) because they haven't left Sudan. Darfuris in camps in neighbouring Chad are refugees because they've crossed an international border.

The definition of a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality..." (1951 Refugee Convention)

People who are displaced from their homes because of violence, regardless of whether this displacement is within a country’s boundaries or across its borders, are both destabilizing forces in local communities where they camp out and are prone to be victimized by militias or criminals. And, of course, there are the issues of disease, mental stress, and malnutrition. These are people who need significant outside assistance whether meeting short term needs of security, public health and nutrition or longer term needs of resettlement.

According to a report from the United Nations, most governments of countries of countries where large numbers of people are displaced because of violence either cannot or will not help them. In fact, in many of these countries the governments are a big part of the problem behind the violence.

This report is from Reuters:
More than 26 million people around the world are displaced by violence inside their own countries but many of their governments either cannot or will not help them, a United Nations-backed report said on Thursday.

And in 21 of 28 countries where large numbers of people fled their homes last year, action by governments or allied groups was the main cause, according to the report from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

"Governments are often part of the problem," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news conference to launch the report, which said 52 countries in all had significant populations of internally displaced, or IDPs.

"Although they are responsible for the well-being of their citizens within their territory, many governments are also unwilling or unable to prevent people being forced from their homes," said NRC Secretary-General Elisabeth Rasmusson.

Rasmusson and Guterres, who heads the UNHCR refugee agency, said many IDPs had no help from their governments, some of whom, declared Rasmusson, also barred or restricted international humanitarian help as violating their sovereignty.

Of the global total, 11.3 million in at least 13 countries had no significant humanitarian aid from their governments, while 9.3 million in at least 10 countries were "faced with governments indifferent or hostile," the report said.

The report showed that Sudan -- where civil conflicts raged in the South until recently and are rife across the western region of Darfur -- with 5.8 million has by far the largest number of displaced.

Second is Colombia, with nearly 4 million, and third Iraq, at 2.5 million. Overall, Africa with 12.7 million has almost half the entire global totals, with numbers surging in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as Zimbabwe.

The current total of IDPs -- a term used to distinguish them from refugees who have crossed an international border -- is the largest since the peak crisis in 1993.
That year hundreds of thousands in Europe and the Caucasus were added to standing totals on other continents amid fighting that erupted with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the old Soviet Union. The 2007 total was six percent up on 2006, largely because of continuing displacement in Iraq, according to the report.

Guterres said that IDPs -- many of them fleeing to cities and large towns where they lived on the margins of society -- were suffering more than any other group from rising global food and fuel prices.

"These are the world's most vulnerable people," he said. While refugees had the UNHCR to help them under a U.N. mandate, IDPs had no-one and were largely left to the often inadequate protection of their own governments.

The report, drawn up by the NRC's Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Centre, said IDPs "frequently fall victim to the gravest human rights abuses ... attacks, arbitrary arrests and detention". Women and girls faced sexual violence, including rape and forced prostitution, while those guilty of offences against them often went unpunished. IDP children were at high risk of forced recruitment by armed groups.

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