What happens to people who are forced to leave their homes to escape armed conflict or persecution and are not able to leave their countries to seek refuge?


What happens to people who are forced to leave their homes to escape armed conflict or persecution and are not able to leave their countries to seek refuge?

by Nolan Rappaport

Many people who flee to avoid conflict or persecution are not able to leave their countries to seek refuge. This is an enormous problem. The most recent UNHCR[1] Statistical Yearbook states that by the end of 2013, armed conflict and persecution had forced 51.2 million individuals to flee from their homes, and 33.3 million of them had not been able to leave their countries.[2] A person who is still in his own country is not eligible for “refugee” status even if he is fleeing persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. The term “refugee” is defined by law as a person outside of his own country who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.[3] While they remain in their own countries, they are just “internally displaced persons.”

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement handbook[4] restates and compiles the human rights and humanitarian laws that pertain to internally displaced persons. It provides guidance to governments, other competent authorities, intergovernmental organizations, and non-government organizations by addressing the specific needs of internally displaced persons worldwide. The handbook provides, among other things, that arbitrary displacement in the first instance is prohibited (Principles 5-7). Displaced persons have the right to basic humanitarian assistance (such as food, medicine, shelter); the right to be protected from physical violence; the right to education, freedom of movement and residence; political rights such as the right to participate in public affairs; and the right to participate in economic activities (Principles 10-23). Displaced persons also have the right to assistance from competent authorities in voluntary, dignified and safe return, resettlement or local integration, including help in recovering lost property and possessions. (Principles 28-30).[5]

Examples of Displaced Persons

COLOMBIA. As of October 2014, more than 5,745,200 people had been internally displaced in Colombia. The primary reason is armed conflict, which has raged in Colombia for more than 50 years. The warring factions include guerrilla groups, pro-government paramilitary groups, and criminal organizations, such as drug traffickers. Most of the internally displaced people leave their homes in small numbers, but Colombia also has had mass displacements in recent years. Intra-urban displacement has been increasing, but flight from the rural countryside still is predominant.[6] According to the UNHCR, the majority of internally displaced persons in Colombia experience severe psychological trauma from trying to cope with life in the big cities. Many of them do not have the legal identification cards required for health benefits, free education, or other services provided by the government. Also, violent gang activity is common in the barrios. The displaced persons live in poverty with a very low quality of life, and most of them cannot find jobs. Many are illiterate, uneducated farmers. Women and children are particularly vulnerable; they face sexual exploitation, violence, and malnutrition. Many of the adolescent girls are forced into prostitution by gangs or simply to survive.[7]

Nolan Rappaport

Families carry their belongings up a hill in the outskirts of Bogata.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC. The Central African Republic has a total population of 4,700,000 people.[8] Since it became independent from France in 1960, it has had at least five coup d’états and many protracted civil conflicts. The human toll has been considerable. A report from the United Nations describes rampant violations of human rights, which includes extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, mutilations, and targeting of civilians on the basis of their religions. Moreover, some of the violence is directed at innocent women and children. Last year, UNICEF reported the beheadings of two children and the mutilation of a third child. Children fleeing the violence also have experienced disease and malnutrition while trekking through jungles to the relative safety of their neighbors’ lands. Many of them have been unable to attend school, and the ones who have been able to attend a school have been crammed into overcrowded classrooms. For women, the biggest fear is sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee (IRC)[9] interviewed 125 women and girls in early 2014 that had come to IRC for help. Eighty-four per cent of them reported that they had been raped.[10]

In a press release issued on April 27, 2015, the UNHCR reported that 900,000 people from the Central African Republic had been displaced from their homes since December 2013. The Central African Republic still has 436,000 displaced people. According to the UNHCR, this is becoming the largest forgotten humanitarian crisis of our time.[11]

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SYRIA. The total population in Syria is 22,000,000 people.[12] At a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, Antonio Guterres, UNHCR Commissioner for Reugees said that the effects of the Syrian conflict are taking dramatic proportions. Fourteen million people have been displaced by the interlinked crises in Syria and Iraq. The situation has become utterly unsustainable, and it has produced increasingly dangerous global consequences.[13] According to UNICEF, the escalating conflict sweeping Syria has left 7.5 million Syrian children in need, nearly 15 times the number in 2012. Half of all Syrians are displaced. Many of Syria’s youngest children have known nothing but war for their entire lives.[14] The Syrian government not only has failed to protect its citizens from being displaced, it has been the main cause for their displacement. Among other things, sieges, checkpoints, and international border restrictions have prevented them from fleeing to safer areas, either within or outside the country. Fundamentalist Islamist groups also have caused displacement by committing human rights violations.[15]

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SUDAN. The humanitarian environment in Sudan has deteriorated over the past two years. Approximately 400,000 additional people have been displaced.[16] As of February 2015, Sudan had 3,100,000 internally displaced people.[17] And, on April 10, 2015, South Sudan had at least 1,520,300 people who had been displaced from their homes by a coup attempt and the ensuing violence.[18] Fighting broke out in Malakal and continued for two days. Stray bullets hit a United Nations mission in South Sudan, which is used by military peacekeepers. Mortar rounds landed 400 meters outside the perimeter of the compound, and shelling took place near the installation of the Mission’s Bangladeshi riverine unit. It is not clear what caused this violence. People fled their homes seeking protection from the violence.[19]

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YEMEN. On April 22, 2015, the UNHCR reported that the escalation of violence in Yemen in the last few weeks had displaced 120,000 to 150,000 people, and the number is expected to increase if the violence continues. This is in addition to the 300,000 Yemenis who have been displaced by previous violence. Critical shortages in fuel, water, and food make travel to safer areas more difficult. An attack on the city of Sa’ada left a multitude of public buildings in shambles, and a large explosion in that city on April 20th caused more infrastructure damage, which included the UNHCR office. The Bureau for Refugee Affairs was damaged too in a separate incident. In addition, post offices, gas stations, telecommunication centers, and homes have been damaged and in many cases, destroyed.[20] According to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),[21] the humanitarian situation in Yemen is deteriorating rapidly. Air strikes and armed conflict have significantly increased displacement. At least 100,000 civilians have fled their homes since the beginning of the conflict. Large-scale displacement is likely to increase in the coming days as clashes continue. According to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO),[22] 560 people have been killed and 1,768 injured between March 19 and April 4. This includes at least 210 civilian deaths and 500 civilian injuries.[23]

Nolan Rappaport

Militants loyal to Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi take their positions in Taiz, Yemen.

IRAQ. At a press briefing on April 21, 2015, UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards reported that the fighting between government forces and extremist had displaced 114,000 Iraqis in Ramadi over a two-week period. Approximately 2.7 million Iraqis have been internally displaced in Iraq since January 2014.[24] They are dispersed across 1,928 locations in Iraq. This includes 450,000 women, of whom an estimated 72,000 are pregnant. Roughly 47% (889,878 individuals) are located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many of the displaced persons in central Iraq are beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies. And both religious and ethnic minorities fear discrimination when they seek refuge and aid. The conditions they are living under are very bad. Some of them are using a swamp as a swimming pool, and the swamp is highly contaminated. This increases the risk of getting scabies.[25] UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos spent three days in Iraq to observe the humanitarian toll caused by the violence and fear in that country. She describes the situation as a serious humanitarian crisis brought on by the violence and brutality committed by terrorist organizations. She spoke to families living in camps, schools, and unfinished buildings who had fled from their homes and were still terrified.[26]

Nolan Rappaport

Two Yazidi boys stand outside a tent at the Hanke camp in Duhok, Kurdistan.

UNHCR Provides a Helping Hand

Displaced persons invariably need a considerable amount of help. Most of them leave their homes with little or no resources. UNHCR and its partners provide life-saving emergency assistance in the form of clean water, sanitation, and health care as well as shelter materials and other relief items, such as blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, household goods and sometimes food. UNHCR helps some people to return home by arranging transportation and providing assistance packages. It also participates in local reintegration programs, which includes income-generation projects and help to restore infrastructure.[27]

If you want to help UNHCR, consider a giving a donation to The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). This fund supports rapid humanitarian responses for people affected by natural disasters and armed conflict. CERF receives voluntary contributions year-round to provide immediate funding for life-saving humanitarian action anywhere in the world.[28]

[1] The United Nations General Assembly established the High Commissioner for Refugees on December 14, 1950. Its mandate is to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. UNHCR, About Us, available at http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c2.html

[2]UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, 2013, 13th Edition, 25 Years of Global Forced Displacement, Main Findings at p. 6 (2014), available at http://www.unhcr.org/54cf99109.html

[3] The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, Article 1A, paragraph 2, read now together with the 1967 Protocol and without the time limit, available at http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html;additional information is available at legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/prsr/prsr_e.pdf

[4] OCHA, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, available at www.idpguidingprinciples.org

[5] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction: Scope and Purpose, Number 2 (September 2004), available at http://www.idpguidingprinciples.org/

[6] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC), Colombia IDP Figures Analysis, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/americas/colombia/figures-analysis

[7] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Colombia’s “invisible crisis:” internally displaced persons (February 2, 2015), available at http://www.coha.org/colombias-invisible-crisis-internally-displaced-persons/

[8] iDMC, Central African Republic, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/sub-saharan-africa/central-african-republic/

[9] IRC teams provide health care, infrastructure, learning and economic support to people in 40 countries, which includes special programs for women and children. Every year, it resettles thousands of refugees in 22 U.S. cities. Who We Are, The IRC at a Glance, available at http://www.rescue.org/irc-a-glance

[10] Nathalie Babtiste and Foreign Policy in Focus, The Central African Republic’s Forgotten Crisis (September 11, 2014), available at http://www.thenation.com/blog/181587/central-african-republics-forgotten-crisis

[11] Central African Republic at risk of becoming the world's largest forgotten humanitarian crisis (April 27, 2015), available at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=553e49ec6&query=displaced%20persons

[12]iDMC, Syria, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/syria/

[13]United Nations Security Council (7433th Meeting), Open Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, New York (April 24, 2015), available at, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=553a3fc39&query=displaced%20persons

[14]UNICEF, The Crisis in Syria, Four Years On, 14 Million Children Now Affected (March 13, 2015), available at http://www.unicefusa.org/stories/crisis-syria-four-years-14-million-children-now-affected/22796

[15] iDMC, Syria: Forsaken IDPs adrift inside a fragmenting state (October 21, 2014), available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/syria/2014/syria-forsaken-idps-adrift-inside-a-fragmenting-state

[16] 2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Sudan, available at www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483b76&submit=GO

[17] iDMC, Sudan IDP Figures Analysis, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/sub-saharan-africa/sudan/figures-analysis

[18]iDMC, South Sudan IDP Figures Analysis, available at http://www.internal-displacement.org/sub-saharan-africa/south-sudan/figures-analysis

[19] UNHCR South Sudan Situation, UNHCR Regional Update, 58 (April 20-24, 2015), available at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=52fa45199&query=displaced%20persons

[20] UNHCR, Yemen Situation, UNHCR Crisis Update #2 (April 22, 2015), available at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=552e5d469&query=displaced%20persons

[21] OCHA is the part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. OCHA, About Us, Who We Are, available at www.unocha.org/about-us/who-we-are

[22] The primary role of the World Health Organization is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations’ system. About WHO, available at http://www.who.int/about/en/

[23] OCHA, In Yemen, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace (April 7, 2015), available at http://www.unocha.org/top-stories/all-stories/yemen-humanitarian-situation-continues-deteriorate-alarming-pace

[24] Struggle to reach safety for thousands of civilians fleeing Iraq's Ramadi (April 21, 2015), available at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=55365325b&query=114,000%20Iraqis%20had%20fled%20Ramadi

[25] Almonitor, The Pulse of the Middle East, Iraq’s 2 million IDPs struggling, available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/12/fighting-iraq-creates-2-million-refugees.html

[26] Struggle to reach safety for thousands of civilians fleeing Iraq's Ramadi (April 21, 2015), available at http://www.unocha.org/top-stories/all-stories/iraq-humanitarian-crisis-%E2%80%9Cbrought-violence-and-brutality%E2%80%9Dl

[27] UNHCR, Assistance, A Helping Hand, available at http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646cd4.html

[28] For information on how to make a donation, see United Nations CERF, How to Donate, available at http://unocha.org/cerf/our-donors/how-donate

Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Nolan Rappaport was an immigration counsel on the House Judiciary Committee. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals. He also has been a policy advisor for the DHS Office of Information Sharing and Collaboration under a contract with TKC Communications, and spent time in private practice as an immigration lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson. He is retired now, but he welcomes part time and temporary work.