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RIGHTS: Homeless But Not Stateless, Living in Limbo

Simon Schneller

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 17 2006 (IPS) - Forced by war or humanitarian disasters to flee their homes but keeping within the borders of their own countries, 12 million so-called “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) face a legal and human tragedy in Africa.

Calling it “one of the biggest under-addressed challenges facing Africa”, Dennis McNamara, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator and director of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, says urgent attention must be paid to the uprooted civilian population in countries like Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Burundi.

In Sudan, for example, the 20-year civil war between the government and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SLM) has forced an estimated four million people to flee their homes, making it one of the greatest displacement crises in the world.

After the two sides signed a peace agreement in January 2005, thousands made the journey back to their homes in the south, most “the poorest of the poor”, McNamara said.

“We may yet see the two million inhabitants of the slums of Khartoum forcibly uprooted decades ago from their homes in the south return to become the new slum-dwellers of Juba. And those who have been to Juba will believe me when I say that the slums of Juba will be far more desperate,” he said at a recent press conference here.

Those defined as refugees cross national borders when they flee their homes, and are eligible to receive international protection and help. But for the 23.5 million IDPs worldwide, protection is much more problematic, experts say.

“It is unlikely that IDPs will ever get a legal status similar to that of refugees, mainly because governments fear this would weaken the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs,” Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher of the International Displacement Monitoring Centre told IPS.

In some cases, the governments themselves were the most responsible for displacements, he said.

Since 1950, refugees have been protected under a specific treaty, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But for IDPs, there is only the “Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement” that reflect applicable international law but are not legally binding. There is no U.N. agency dedicated to helping IDPs. While it has no specific mandate to aid this group, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees acts as the ad hoc lead on IDP matters – which has led to criticism that IDPs are treated as less important than refugees.

“What is needed is action by the Security Council and donor countries to hold governments accountable for failing to protect citizens, in line with the notion that states have a responsibility to protect, as adopted by the U.N. Summit last year,” Eschenbaecher said.

“At the same time, a strong presence of the international community is needed on the ground. This includes protection-mandated U.N. agencies, NGOs and, crucially, peace-keeping forces in sufficient numbers and with an adequate mandate.”

McNamara agreed that the United Nations is “not doing enough” for the internally displaced.

“Humanitarian action is relatively easy,” he said. Some four billion dollars a year is necessary for humanitarian appeals, he added, but 10 times more was needed to rebuild the devastated areas to which the displaced must return.

“We need more from UNDP (the U.N. Development Programme), we need more from the World Bank, we need more from donors to really invest in the less concrete, less visible, longer-term, fundamental services to reestablish the lives of the poor, miserable displaced civilian populations,” he said, calling for development projects such as livestock and income-generation projects.

The relatively few NGOs dealing with IDPs in affected countries mainly provide immediate services like shelters, latrines, washing areas, food, basic health services and education. In most areas, IDPs are without adequate humanitarian assistance, protection and security.

“People are forced to focus on day-to-day survival. There is a lack of everything in Darfur (Sudan) – food, water, clothing, firewood, healthcare,” Silja Paasilinna, a senior programme officer with Relief International, told IPS.

According to U.N. estimates, there are over 1.6 million internally displaced persons in Darfur and more than 200,000 refugees who have moved into neighbouring Chad. A government-backed campaign aimed at uprooting the non-Arab, mainly African population throughout the region has left an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people dead.

McNamara noted that a major challenge to relief efforts there is safety – 7,800 peacekeeping troops, although very valuable, were not an “appropriate response to the magnitude of this problem”, he said.

“We feed them (the IDPs) by and large, (but) we don’t protect them at all appropriately,” he said. “We don’t have enough people on the ground to do the protection in the comprehensive way that we should be doing it and therefore we have the humanitarian aid workers in the front line.”

Paasilinna said that, “We need to evacuate staff following security incidents. For example, Tawilla, where most of our health and nutrition activities take place and where we work in two IDP camps, has been pretty much a no-go-zone since December.”

“Also we have experienced carjackings, detainments and harassments by both parties. Apologies usually follow, but staff are sometimes quite shaken.”

Last September, an IDP camp in the town of Seleia in western Darfur was attacked, leaving 29 people dead and causing most of the camp’s 4,000 to 5,000 residents to flee into the countryside.

Mass displacement, McNamara wrote in the International Herald Tribune last December, frequently entails the “most horrendous crimes” – slaughter, widespread torture, sexual violence and enslavement. For children, it can mean abduction, forced military recruitment, sexual violence and death.

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