The 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.

Intra-state conflicts
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!

Forced migration
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.

Tragically 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.

In 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Vital framework
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.

And 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.

This 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.

Lack 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.

Of 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.

Sri Lanka’s displaced
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.

Tragically 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.

Most 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.

These 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.

Extracts 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.

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