world’s displaced cry out for help
My first visit to Sri Lanka in 1980 was to attend a regional Asian-African
Legal Consultative Committee Conference, when I was a rather inexperienced
UNHCR legal adviser for the region, based in Hong Kong. Like most
new arrivals, I was struck by Sri Lanka's beauty, its sophistication,
and its tranquillity. I was also struck by its food: I always remember
the reaction of a delegation from Russia at my conference dinner
table when they took their first mouthfuls of some of the hottest
chillie on earth!
But like 30 other countries around the world, in recent decades
the beauty and tranquillity of Sri Lanka have been torn apart by
a vicious - and dare I say, pointless - civil war since that time.
Sadly, my subsequent visits to Sri Lanka over the past 25 years
have been in response to the human cost of this tragic conflict:
in particular the international response to the million people displaced
and those made refugees by this war.
While inter-state conflicts have reduced since the end of the Cold
War, intra-state violence and its consequences have not. One of
the results is that we have today worldwide at least 25 million
civilians uprooted and displaced by conflict and violence, in all
regions: more than twice the number of refugees globally. In Africa
the ratio is even more stark: Three million refugees and 13 million
internally displaced. The new millennium has become an era of unprecedented
population movement. Record numbers of people are on the move, both
south/north and south/south. The recent Global Commission on International
Migration says that there are today 200 million "international
migrants", which would make a "migrant country" the
fifth largest in the world!
While the large majority of migrants move freely and often prosper,
others have been forced to leave home by poverty, exploitation,
abuse and trafficking. Unfortunately, Asia remains one of the regions
most familiar with these negative aspects of the migration phenomenon.
All forced migrants need protection and assistance.
the response of the rich world to this by-product global inequity
is to build new walls, with more razor wire, as we have seen recently
between Morocco and Spain. The new slogan for Africa "Make
Poverty History" will only come about with proper development
and realistic immigration policies - new Berlin Walls can only exacerbate
the issue. They should certainly remain history.
addition to 200 million migrants, we face a global forced displacement
phenomenon which might soon reach 100 million people. This includes
50 million displaced people worldwide by disasters and crises, approximately
half - 25 million - made homeless by conflict. A recent UN University
study estimates that there may be up to 50 million more "environmental
refugees" in the world in 5 years' time, fleeing environmental
degradation in one form or another. There are, as well, some 10
million classic refugees, according to UNHCR, not including up to
4 million displaced Palestinians.
of these figures are at best estimates, as there is still no systematic
registration of displaced populations and figures can be politically
distorted either up and down. Whatever the precise figure, the issue
of displaced populations from both conflict and abuse, deprivation
and natural disasters is one of the major - and least addressed
- of all global humanitarian problems. The figures speak for themselves
but equally alarming is the disparity in treatment of different
groups of displaced and refugees.
terrible consequences of the tsunami disaster, which so devastated
this country as well as others in the region, and now the earthquake
in Pakistan and India have served to highlight the real time human
consequences of forced mass upheaval. In the tsunami example, this
helped to mobilize a massive international response, particularly
from the public, never seen before and unlikely to be quickly repeated.
is both welcome and necessary, but the problems go much deeper than
the initial relief phase, difficult as that may be. Rebuilding after
destruction - whether caused by man or God - is always more difficult
to organize than humanitarian relief. And most disasters will never
get anything like the coverage of tsunami.
For any response to displacement the Guiding Principles on Internally
Displaced Persons are a vital framework, although still formally
accepted or applied by far too few governments (and by none in this
region). Your support for the efforts of the UN, including those
of the Representative of the Secretary-General, in promoting broader
acceptance of the Principles in Asia would be important.
In Nepal and elsewhere, displaced populations are often mixed with
the local poor, not in camps but usually superimposed on urban slums.
the too-often ignored starting point of the primary responsibility
of national authorities for these displaced within their own country
needs constant reiteration. The international responsibility to
protect can never be an adequate substitute for this, even though
it may often be needed to complement a poor or even wilful lack
of state response. If the responsibility to protect doctrine was
to be properly implemented, it should be an important step in reducing
the number of people who need to flee.
inevitably links to issues of sovereignty: state vs international
responsibility, in which regrettably Asian governments have been
among the most recalcitrant. As you all know too well, major countries
in Asia vigorously resist international intervention in this area,
despite well-documented and inadequately addressed displacement
protection problems. Myanmar is, unfortunately, not alone in taking
this stance. Despite increased awareness, the protection of displaced
populations, especially from conflict but also in the case of natural
disasters, remains one of the critical gaps in the international
response to this problem. The ICRC often does excellent work in
those conflict areas where it can and does operate. But the problem
is wider and millions of displaced civilians from both conflict
and abuse, as well as disasters, continue to lack even the most
basic protection today.
of dedicated UN agency
The other important factor in the limited response to displacement
is the lack of any dedicated UN agency for this especially vulnerable
category. Of the tens of millions of people displaced today, only
the 9 million recognized refugees have an agency mandated specifically
to protect them. The result is that the internally displaced have
historically lacked any recognized international voice for their
protection, which is first and foremost a human rights responsibility.
As with refugees, I believe it is very important when we speak of
protection of displaced populations, we recognize that the ultimate
- and best protection - is long term solutions. We had high level
discussions here last year with President Chandrika Kumaratunga
on the desirability of some IDPs going home to safe and sustainable
areas (such as Muslims to Jaffna). Such symbolic movements, if successful
and well managed, can be important in encouraging other returns.
course, some groups forcibly displaced may never be able or willing
to go back, including in Sri Lanka. There has never been a mass
displacement of populations by war or disaster where everyone has
gone home: there are always some who have valid reasons to stay.
When this happens, we need to look actively at supporting them to
settle locally. This means security, basic services and access to
land and property.
The UN, with national and NGO help, needs to do more in searching
for these solutions, if we are not to perpetuate displacement indefinitely.
But in my view, if freely and fully informed displaced people are
unable or unwilling to return home, and if they enjoy the basic
protection and entitlements equivalent to the local population,
without any discrimination, they should be regarded as locally settled.
Here community-based local action, in which the NGO role is key,
is a critical component. Together we need to undertake a more systematic
global survey of those who might fall within this category, if we
are to make real progress.
in the 25 years since I first visited this beautiful country, Sri
Lanka has itself witnessed one of the largest population upheavals
in Asia. At least a million people uprooted by years of war and
then the awful loss and displacement of hundreds of thousands more
by the tsunami disaster.
families here have suffered some loss or displacement from these
catastrophic events in recent decades. At the same time, you have
highly respected political institutions and processes: a ceasefire
agreement that has largely held, despite political deadlocks in
recent years; and important collaboration from both sides on issues
such as demining and reconstruction.
are the positives that need to be built upon and there needs to
be real progress soon. The world still widely supports Sri Lanka
and billions of dollars have been pledged to help this country rebuild,
once peace is established. And the basis for any such recovery is
population stability: returnees are always the best rebuilds. We
can only hope that the new government will seize this chance for
a lasting settlement and real development in the coming months.
of the speech delivered by Dennis McNamara, head, Internal Displacement
Division, UN Office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,
at the inauguration of the Regional Workshop on National Human Rights
Institution and Internally Displaced Persons at Galadari Hotel on
October 25, 2005.
India, Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan and
Maldives Human Rights Commissions were represented at the workshop
hosted by the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission.