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Internally displaced people: facing up to the challenges

12-11-2009 Interview

Displacement due to armed conflict uproots people from their normal lives, often inflicting untold suffering on them. A new ICRC report, “Internal displacement in armed conflict,” paints a vivid, disturbing picture of this phenomenon. In this interview, Angela Gussing, ICRC Deputy Director of Operations, discusses the challenges faced by internally displaced people (IDPs).

Angela Gussing, ICRC Deputy Director of Operations 

  What causes internal displacement and is it possible to prevent it from occurring?  

Based on the work we do, I think there are two major causes of forced displacement, both of them stemming from lack of security.

Firstly, people flee their homes because of direct threats to their lives, such as armed conflict, violence, discrimination or intimidation. Choosing to flee your home is an agonizing decision fraught with uncertainty about what lies ahead. It is never taken lightly. It exposes people to physical harm, destitution, loss of their regular way of life and separation from loved ones. 

Secondly, people leave their homes because their livelihoods are threatened. Fighting and insecurity can make it impossible for them to earn a living or to access essential services, because they can no longer tend to their fields, sell their products or reach their markets. It can disrupt their access to health care, water supply, education, and other essential services.

As to your question if it is possible to prevent displacement from occurring, my answer is yes and no. Displacement is, in no small measure, a result of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). We believe that IHL violations are preventable, and a considerable amount of our work aims to do just that, which is coherent and consistent with our mandate.

The ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent provide relief aid in an IDP camp in Pakistan's Buner District. 

However, there are times when people and communities have no other choice than to flee. When the pressure for them to leave is unbearable, and the only way to preserve life and dignity is to leave, focusing on preventing their displacement would not make sense. Once a family or community have decided to go, the only possible decision for the ICRC is to alleviate their suffering and assist in any way possible. The recent case of Pakistan is a good example where the ICRC, together with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society provided a wide range of assistance to hundred of thousands of people fleeing the fighting in various provinces.

The ICRC tries to have a holistic view. Our response takes into account the various phases and dynamics of the phenomenon of displacement in a given situation. We conduct a wide range of activities before, during and after displacement, tailored to the specific circumstances of the affected communities. The people and their needs guide our operational choices. 

Could you explain the role of host communities and why they also need assistance?  

Most people flee home, often thinking it is a temporary measure and hoping to return as soon as possible. They are likely to seek shelter among family or friends in nearby communities so as to minimize the disruption to their normal lives. These host families and communities take in the newcomers, sharing their own – often meagre – resources even before international or non-governmental organizations know there is a problem or step in to help. 

Host families and communities often bear the brunt of internal displacement. For example, in recent years the Democra tic Republic of the Congo has experienced successive waves of displacement of the same populations, within the same regions. Two thirds of the displaced people have stayed with host families, placing an enormous strain on the resources of local communities. That is why it is so important to ensure they receive assistance.

By preferring to stay among family or friends in nearby communities, many IDPs go unnoticed by international or government aid agencies. It is harder to reach IDPs in places where they find refuge than to set up shelters which may be more convenient or easier for us. However if we really want to meet the needs of displaced people we must make it a priority to reach out to them in the communities that offer them shelter.

Sudan. Forced by fighting to leave home, Mariam and her children have never been in an IDP camp and have had little aid. Read more about Mariam in the Report. 

Somalia is a good example of a major operation to help civilians in their communities – often including huge numbers of displaced people – rather than in camps. We have been doing this since the beginning of the 1990s together with the Somali Red Crescent Society. We provide health services, improve water and sanitation and distribute seed and tools to enable people to regain their self-sufficiency.

There has been a lot of debate about the pros and cons of camps. What is the ICRC's view?  

Camps are not always the best solution. However, sometimes they are the only solution. In some circumstances, when local resources are overstretched and weakened, camps may be the only possible means of restoring security and access to food, water, shelter and other essentials. Camps are vital, particularly in the acute stages of displacement, and while danger still looms. But they also raise a number of dilemmas that need due consideration.

Sometimes camps provide essential services una vailable for residents in surrounding communities. Such disparity can cause resentment, tension and violence between IDPs and resident communities. It can also encourage people to leave their homes to gain access to these services.

Beyond the emergency phase, camps tend to undermine the ability of their dwellers to be self-sufficient. Opportunities are seldom created for IDPs to pursue independent economic options or to sustain their livelihoods. In addition, when established close to towns, camps often develop into urban slums where you find the poorest of the poor. 

Camps can have a profound effect on social norms and interaction. Lack of resources and options can promote violence (including sexual violence), exploitation and discrimination. In addition, camps can be infiltrated by armed groups and weapons can become readily available, both of which increase risks and insecurity for inhabitants. Recruitment, both forced and voluntary, is not uncommon in such camps.

©ICRC/VII/James Nachtwey/ph-e-00230 
An IDP camp in Libutan, Mindanao island, in the Philippines. 

To conclude, the establishment of camps is sometimes unavoidable, but it is important to understand the risks involved and not consider camps as the only option. For our part, our strategy is to provide relevant services for people affected by displacement as quickly as possible, wherever they may be. And often, this is outside of camps.

In each country there is a local Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. How do you work with them?  

Joining forces with our local partners, Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies, helps to optimize the results of our activities and operations. Our combined assets and resources make our response more rapid, relevant and effective.

National Societies often have a network of people and an established infrastructure throughout the country. They are often the first responders from wi thin their own affected communities. Their knowledge of the local dynamics, environment and culture is crucial.

We as international organizations are, after all, outsiders, and having partners who understand the culture and are part of it, and who can understand quickly the people’s needs, helps us define a relevant response much more effectively. We also bring to the partnership important assets, such as a global analysis and perspective, experience from other contexts, resources, capacities and international credibility. It is this combination that is a true asset when designing and implementing activities that are relevant to the lives and needs of those we assist.