There are an estimated 200 million migrants “on the road” today, equal to 3% of the world’s population. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) this figure includes 67 million forcibly displaced persons, of which 16 million are officially refugees. People who have been forced to flee wars, violence or natural disasters, most of them women and children, are extremely vulnerable. In many cases their survival depends on international protection and assistance. There is a significant difference however between a refugee and a person displaced internally in his own country.
A refugee is a person who to escape atrocities at home has sought and found refuge in a different country. The legal status is defined by International Refugee Law based on the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951. At the heart of this Convention is the principle of “non-refoulement” which prohibits the repatriation of people to states where their lives or liberty would be at risk.
In so far as international institutions are concerned, it is mainly the UNHCR which has responsibility for refugees. It provides emergency aid and in the longer term assists either their repatriation or efforts to begin a new life in the host country or a third country.
Unlike refugees, Internally displaced persons as the name suggests have not crossed national boundaries. They thus remain citizens of their native land and are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as the rest of the population. They have no specific legal status as IDPs, and it is above all the central government and local authorities of the country in question that have responsibility for their well-being. In many cases however the authorities are either unable or unwilling to accept this responsibility. It is then up to the international community to ensure their protection, providing assistance and developing an appropriate normative framework. In 2008 about 26 million people in 50 countries were victims of forced displacement due to armed conflicts.
Humanitarian organizations beginning with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UNHCR provide the emergency aid which these people need for survival while guaranteeing them protection, often in precarious conditions.
In view of the lack of international standards for the protection of IDPs, a group of international experts and a former Representative of the UN Secretary General for the human rights of internal refugees have been developing a framework to include all the international norms specifically relevant to IDPs and their protection: the guiding principles on internal displacement. These 30 principles set forth the right of IDPs to protection and assistance, both at the time of displacement and on their return and reintegration.
The Representative of the UN Secretary General for the human rights of internal refugees works hard to improve the situation of internal refugees, notably through discussions with the government concerned. He also monitors the situation with regard to implementation of the guiding principles around the world.