• Send page
  • Print page

How does humanitarian law protect refugees and internally displaced persons?


Extract from ICRC publication "International humanitarian law: answers to your questions"

Refugees are people who have fled their countries, while internally displaced persons (IDPs) are those who have not left their countrys territory.

Refugees enjoy first and foremost the protection afforded them by refugee law and the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). If they are in a State involved in an armed conflict, refugees are also protected by international humanitarian law. Apart from the general protection afforded by IHL to civilians, refugees also receive special protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I. This additional protection recognizes the vulnerability of refugees as aliens in the hands of a party to the conflict and the absence of protection by their State of nationality.

IDPs are protected by various bodies of law, principally national law, human rights law and, if they are in a State undergoing armed conflict, international humanitarian law.

If IDPs are in a State which is involved in an armed conflict, they are considered civilians provided they do not take an active part in the hostilities and, as such, are entitled to the protection afforded to civilians.

When they are respected, these rules play an important role in preventing displacement, as it is often their violation which leads to displacement. In addition, humanitarian law expressly prohibits compelling civilians to leave their places of residence unless their security or imperative military reasons so demand.

Once displaced, IDPs are protected from the effects of hostilities by the general rules governing the protection of civilians and humanitarian assistance set out above.

The general rules of humanitarian law for the protection of civilians, if respected, can prevent displacement. If not, they can offer protection during displacement. Particular mention should be made of the following rules, which prohibit:

  • attacks on civilians and civilian objects or the conduct of hostilities in an indiscriminate manner;

  • starvation of the civilian population and the destruction of objects indispensable to its survival;

  • collective punishments which often take the form of destruction of dwellings.

There are also the rules requiring parties to a conflict to allow relief consignments to reach civilian populations in need.

Definition of a refugee 

According to Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention on the status of refugees, the term refugee applies to any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The 1969 Convention of the Organization of African Unity on refugee problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on refugees have broadened that definition to include people fleeing events w hich seriously disrupt public order, such as armed conflicts and disturbances.