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ICRC activities for internally displaced people


Examples of operations carried out in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYROM) and Angola.




    Bogotá suburb. Listening to accounts from families who have fled fighting.
ref. CO-D-00100
08/2000 © ICRC /Boris Heger

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been working in Colombia without interruption since 1980. In the late 1980s and early 1990s it became increasingly involved in activities for conflict victi ms, and since 1996 has maintained a network of 16 offices nationwide.

In Colombia the pattern of displacement, which is a daily occurrence, is no less complex than the pattern of conflict itself. Those affected may be alone or in groups of up to several hundred people. To quote from Frédérique Prunera’s article “Displaced persons in Colombia and Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries: UNHCR and ICRC action” [1 ] : “estimates concerning the number of persons displaced throughout Colombia vary from one organization to another, depending on the criteria used to define internally displaced persons (IDPs), the period of displacement and even the importance attached to the operation in question. In 2000 there were estimated to be 200,000 displaced persons, and it is reckoned that conflict has forced nearly two million people from their homes since 1985”.

The ICRC’s activities are accepted by all parties to conflict – the civilian and military authorities and the police, as well as guerrilla and paramilitary “self-defence” forces. The organization takes every possible opportunity to bring international humanitarian law (IHL) to the attention of the parties concerned.

The ICRC also runs major awareness campaigns and makes diplomatic representations in an attempt to put an end to aggression against civilians, which obviously may prompt population movements.


Assistance and protection for local and displaced populations 

The type of protection and assistance that the ICRC offers in Colombia varies according to circumstances and depends in particular on the nature of the threat to IDPs and the risks to which they are exposed. Since 2000, the ICRC has observed a steady rise in the numbers concerned by both individual and mass displacement. In 2001 it assisted around 20,000 people every month. It has also stepped up its technical support for the government’s programme to resettle displaced persons.

Most displaced persons continue, directly or indirectly, to suffer from the prevailing climate of insecurity. There is a clear link between the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection activities conducted around the country by ICRC delegates, who take note of incidents and violations of humanitarian law resulting in displacement. Numerous approaches have been made to the working parties in an attempt to convince them of the need for greater compliance with the rules of IHL. The common practice of abduction remains a particularly serious concern. The ICRC continues its efforts to persuade those responsible for abductions to put a stop to the practice, and urges hostage-takers to respect the physical integrity and the dignity of their captives.

Post-emergency aid is channelled through activities such as “quick-impact projects” (QIPs), which the ICRC has set up in several departments in cooperation with government bodies and other organizations. The purpose of QIPs is to help displaced persons, returnees and host communities through the critical period of transition between emergency assistance and the IDPs’ rehabilitation and reintegration into community life. QIPs focus primarily on repairs to small-scale infrastructure, such as community centres, schools and bridges, and on income-generating projects in farming and fishing.

Owing to the steady deterioration of security conditions, medical staff at government health centres in several conflict zones have abandoned their posts. In other places, civilians are prevented by the persistent fighting from getting through to medical services. Working with staff of the Colombian Red Cross, the ICRC’s four mobile health units regularly v isit isolated communities (on occasion by boat) in order to provide basic treatment and conduct health education activities.

Protection for detainees 

During their visits to detention centres, delegates focus on maintaining a dialogue with prison authorities and security detainees. They also take every opportunity to emphasize the fundamental right of detainees to respect for their physical integrity and human dignity.

 December 2001  


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 ICRC News  01/39  

 4 October 2001  

  Colombia: Quick-impact projects 

For several years now, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been carrying out “quick-impact projects” aimed at improving living conditions in urban and rural communities affected by the internal armed conflict in Colombia. With the help of local residents, it builds, enlarges and refurbishes schools, community centres, health posts, sports centres, walkways, libraries and rural homes.


Since they were launched in June 1999, some 50 of the 75 projects so far approved have been implemented, benefiting over 226,000 people in 23 of the country’s 32 departments. All the projects have been carried out in areas affected by the fighting, where the ICRC maintains a constant dialogue with the parties to the conflict. The ICRC is the only humanitarian organization present in about half of these areas.


Most recently, a community centre was built for 120 displaced children whose families have taken refuge in the city of Puerto Asís, in the Putumayo department of southern Colombia.

Over the coming months, some projects will be completed and others started up in an effort to further improve the living conditions of conflict victims and strengthen the ties between displaced people and local residents.



1. International Review of the Red Cross, No. 843, September 2001, pp. 763-780. 

Democratic Republic of the Congo


Democratic Republic of the Congo 

    Democratic Republic of the Congo
ref. CD-D-00034-15
08/2000 © ICRC /Jean-Patrick Di Silvestro

In August 1998 war broke out again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been ravaged by fighting since 1996. While the new conflict pits government forces against Congolese rebel movements, it also involves the armies of five foreign States and has caused major population movements in various parts of the country. In most cases, civilians have sought refuge in urban areas where they place a serious strain on already meagre resources and infrastructure.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) conducts protection and assistance activities on behalf of displaced persons and, where necessary, local communities, ensuring that due account is taken of the needs of both groups.

Since the fighting started, the ICRC has maintained a permanent presence in both government-controlled and rebel-held territory. In the eastern part of the country, which is in the hands of the armed opposition, nearly 200,000 people – most of them IDPs – receive regular ICRC assistance in the form of food and other supplies (mostly seed and tools). A further 63,000 displaced persons who opted to return to their villages have been given material aid to help them resume farming activities.

In the government-controlled southern regions, the ICRC provides health authorities and hospitals with essential medical supplies to allow them to cope with tens of thousands of displaced persons in serious need of medical treatment. Seed has been distributed to 50,000 people in Lubumbashi, and the ICRC brought aid to some 4,000 IDPs in four separate locations. In Kinshasa, where traditional supply lines had been cut, causing food shortages, some 250,000 vulnerable people in the poorest neighbourhoods were given seed and tools under vegetable cultivation projects run in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The ICRC has also launched activities to restore family ties among both displaced and settled populations. An extensive network of Red Cross offices (178 nationwide) has been set up to collect and deliver Red Cross messages written by civilians. More than 250,000 messages were exchanged by this means in 2001. The family reunification programme, which principally targets unaccompanied minors, has been further consolidated, and more than 400 children were reunited with their families during the same year.


 December 2001  



Eye-witness account
  Democratic Republic of the Congo: At a camp for the displaced 

“They came down the river to escape the fighting”, said Moïse, a clergyman who also works for the government agency in charge of reintegrating displaced people into society. “They” – two women – had recently arrived at a camp for the displaced in Kinkole, on the outskirts of Kinshasa.

Moïse runs the camp, which shelters just over 1,100 people (around 580 families), including 641 women – most of whom became separated from their husbands during the hostilities – and 470 children. The camp, which opened in November 1999, initially took in 400 of the 1,800 people repatriated from Bangui in the Central African Republic by UNHCR. They were mostly women and children who had fled the fighting in Equateur province, in the north-western Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Stretched out above the river Congo, the unfenced camp is surrounded by dense vegetation and rice fields cultivated by local farmers. The displaced people have moved into disused buildings, which at least have roofs (repaired by the ICRC) and sturdy walls. The shelter afforded is especially welcome during the torrential downpours that mark the end of the rainy season. A dozen policemen patrol the grounds, adding to the feeling of security.

On the day of the visit, a truck marked with a red cross pulled into the camp and the children immediately gathered around: it was distribution time. There was no mad scramble for the rice, beans, salt and oil being handed out, only wide eyes and bursts of laughter.

The ICRC has been providing these people with food and basic medical supplies from the very start. It turns the medicines over to a specialized Congolese NGO that comes to the camp once a week. In between visits, two women who live in the camp and have some medical knowledge act as nurses.

Two ICRC delegates, one of them a doctor, had come to talk to Moïse about everyday problems in the camp. Now it was time for the Congolese authorities to find a way to reintegrate the inhabitants into society so that they could lead active lives again. The two delegates explained this to Moïse, who listened attentively. Assistance is important, but the authorities must also be made aware of their responsibilities if this camp is not to go the way of so many others in Africa and become a permanent place of exile.

Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka 

    Sri Lanka, Omantai, between Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam zone. People crossing over the front line.
ref. lk-d-00062
06/2002 © ICRC /Tim Page

Fighting in the Vanni and on the Jaffna peninsula has caused large-scale population movements, destroyed economic security and restricted access to health care. More than 160,000 people on the Jaffna peninsula have had to leave their homes. Most of the 300,000 people living in the Vanni have also become displaced, and the families of some 2,000 widows living there are particularly vulnerable. Poor living conditions, unreliable food supplies and limited access to clean water and medical facilities are creating serious health risks for both the displaced and the resident populations of these regions and, to a lesser extent, for people living in the eastern districts.

Many families separated by the conflict have difficulty locating close relatives or maintaining contact with them. When someone is arrested or goes missing in action, their family is not always informed of their fate.

It is important to maintain or restore links between members of families that have been split up, and the elderly, children and others in a vulnerable position should be able to rejoin their families when separation causes serious hardship.

People from the areas affected by the conflict face restrictions on movement and severe communication problems – telecommunications systems are not working. Crossing the lines between the two sides is also very difficult: preparing for a trip from the Vanni to Colombo may take two months by the time a potential traveller obtains all necessary clearances.

ICRC action 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC):

  • passes radio messages regarding funerals, the sickness of a close relative, urgent administrative appointments, etc.;

  • provides letters stating that a relative is sick or has died; such a letter makes it easier to obtain the required pass;

  • reunites families split between Jaffna and other parts of Sri Lanka, although the criteria are somewhat restrictive;

  • passes Red Cross messages (RCMs) between family members who have lost contact due to the conflict; people living in Jaffna and the Vanni account for the majority of RCMs;

  • provides protection for a passenger ferry linking the South with the Jaffna peninsula. At the request of the Sri Lankan government, the ICRC agreed to protect the ship with the Red Cross emblem on its twice weekly trips to and from the North, provided only civilians were on board. This ferry is the only way for the isolated population to travel.

During 2001, other ICRC activities to help displaced and resident populations included:

  • monitoring violations of international humanitarian law;

  • maintaining basic medical services;

  • organizing water and sanitation activities, which included training community members to maintain septic tanks;

  • distributing roofing materials, school clothes, bedding, mats and hygiene materials to displaced families. 

 March 2002  

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYROM)


Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) 



  Skopje, Distribution Centre. Displaced villagers from the area north of Tetovo receive food and hygiene parcels.
ref. MK-N-00006-25
07/2001 © ICRC/Goran Jakimovski

In August 2001, the Orhid peace agreement officially ended the fighting. Since then, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been meeting the humanitarian needs arising from the conflict.


Displaced and resident populations 

Since fighting stopped, the situation in the regions affected by the conflict has gradually improved. In particular, food is more readily available, allowing the ICRC to reduce food distributions.

In conjunction with the Red Cross of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the ICRC is continuing to help people who cannot return to their homes for reasons related to the conflict. The organization recently began re-registering the population to find out who was still genuinely displaced and should therefore continue to receive food. The ICRC also continues to assist collective centres where displaced pers ons are living.

The ICRC has been running a major programme to help the resident populations of conflict-affected villages – both those who never left and those who have recently returned to their homes. Around 50,000 people – both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians – have been receiving regular monthly rations, a measure rendered necessary by disruption of their regular supply routes. During September 2001, over 100,000 people in the FYROM received relief supplies from the ICRC. The aid helped both internally displaced persons and residents of isolated villages where supply lines remained disrupted. The ICRC will continue to assist everyone still suffering from the direct effects of the conflict, working in accordance with its independent assessment of their needs.

Protection activities 

The ICRC is particularly concerned about persistent problems in villages directly affected by the fighting. Many civilians from both communities are still afraid to move around. They also have difficulties obtaining essential items such as food, medicines, salaries and pension payments. The ICRC has visited the crisis regions daily, to respond quickly to problems and reassure people who are living in fear. This is especially important for the small number of elderly ethnic Macedonians living in isolated villages in the Tetovo area, such as Lesok and Neprosteno, where the ICRC has been the only international organization to supply aid and provide mobile phones so that villagers could keep in touch with their families.

The ICRC has also evacuated more than 1,200 people from the conflict-affected area to safer areas and reunited around 200 families from the Tetovo area separat ed during the sudden population movement in July 2001.

Finally, the ICRC is systematically collecting names and other relevant information from relatives regarding persons who went missing as a result of the conflict, with a view to requesting answers from the respective authorities as a matter of urgency.


 December 2001  




ref. AO-D-00174
12/2001 © ICRC/Luz Luzemo

The conflict in Angola has been causing major population movements for over 25 years. These movements have brought suffering and hardship, both to the displaced and to those who have stayed put. All have had to cope with the consequences of war, whether direct or indirect, and to share resources that were often scarce to begin with. Over time, many of the displaced have had to face problems not only of immediate survival but also of social and economic integration. This has been a particular problem for people resettling in Luanda or the provincial capitals.

When the Angolan government and UNITA resumed hostilities in December 1998, the ensuing insecurity touched off new waves of displacement, with yet more people fleeing to the urban areas of central Angola. The plight of these people has been exacerbated by the regular plundering of farm produce, which continues to deprive both the displaced and the local population of their means of survival.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing protection and assistance for many years, concentrating on the conflict areas of the central Planalto where needs are the greatest and most urgent.

To combat chronic food shortages, the ICRC has been carrying out food and economic security programmes that have benefited everyone living on the outskirts of the city of Huambo and in outlying villages. These programmes have provided regular relief for 330,000 people: residents, displaced persons sheltered by residents and displaced persons in various other locations.

The ICRC carried out continuous nutrition surveys throughout the operation to evaluate the impact of the programmes. The positive impact of the ICRC’s agricultural programmes and the improved security situation around Huambo enabled both the residents it had been assisting and the displaced persons living among them to regain their self-sufficiency. At the end of April 2001, the ICRC was therefore able to reduce the food assistance being provided to some 300,000 people. In September 2001, the ICRC provided agricultural assistance to this group for the Lavras season.

For the rest of the year the ICRC focused on providing food to the 30,000 displaced persons living in camps or “Collective Centres” who did not have access to land suitable for cultivation. In 2002, the ICRC has continued to distribute food to these people, but as the authorities have gradually allocated land to them, the ICRC as been able to reduce food relief and start providing agricultural assistance.

To be as efficient as possible, and to ensure that all needs are met, the ICRC cooperates closely with other humanitarian organizations, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and Save the Children UK, which have also distributed food to people in Huambo. Since 1999, the ICRC has concentrated on providing non-food items, as large numbers of displaced persons moved to Kuito, causing a critical need to improve shelter in over 30 camps. Since then, food assistance in Kuito has been covered by WFP and its implementing partners.

The ICRC has also been carrying out water distribution and latrine construction projects to improve hygiene and sanitation at new sites for displaced persons, especially in Kuito. There, it maintains daily cooperation with the WFP and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Care, Médecins sans frontières and Oxfam. In Huambo, its main water and sanitation activities are in Huambo hospital, where the ICRC is renovating the main hospital infrastructure (cleaning water tanks; repairing and repl acing water pipes, taps and toilets; maintaining the water system; renovating the sewerage system and – in cooperation with Swiss Humanitarian Aid – renovating the electrical system).

The ICRC’s primary health care programmes in Huambo, Kuito and Uige and its surgical assistance to Huambo hospital and the prosthetic/orthotic centres in Luanda, Huambo and Kuito cater to the needs of the sick and the war-wounded, of whom many are displaced persons. In June 2001, following the departure of an NGO, the ICRC also started work in the paediatric department of Huambo hospital. It also cooperates on a regular basis with medical organizations, such as the International Medical Corps and Médecins sans frontières .

During 2001 the ICRC was able – in most provinces – to gain access to persons held under the authority of government security forces, either as detainees or as sheltered surrenderees. The same year, the ICRC submitted allegations that the civilian population were suffering violations of international humanitarian law to the authorities concerned at field level. In an effort to prevent such violations, the ICRC is promoting knowledge of the basic rules of international humanitarian law and of the ICRC’s mandate, principles and activities among the Angolan armed forces and the national police force.

The ICRC has set up a Red Cross message network, enabling thousands of people to write to their relatives in Angola and abroad (mainly in Namibia, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) after the renewed fighting and ensuing displacement interrupted communications.

 December 2001  

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