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ICRC activities relating to internal displacement - Economic and Social Council - Humanitarian Affairs Segment

19-07-2000 Statement

The ICRC's views on certain issues associated with internal displacement and overview of ICRC activities in five countries: Angola, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Sri Lanka and Colombia

 "Strengthening the coordination of humanitarian response and the role of technology in mitigating the effects of natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies, including conflicts, with particular reference to the displacement of persons arising therefrom"  



 I. Introduction  

The displacement of a population within its own borders is a humanitarian problem of major concern, both for the States directly affected and for the international community as a whole.   Although all internally displaced persons share the same basic need for security, dignity and an income, the conditions in which they live can be quite different. This calls for a tailored response taking into account the specific problems to be tackled in each case. 

The ICRC's position on this question was presented earlier this year in a paper entitled " Internally displaced persons: The mandate and role of the International Committee of the Red Cross " . The present document aims to give a brief description of the ICRC's role in the overall humanitarian response to the problem of internal displacement. It emphasizes modes of cooperation between the ICRC and various authorities and humanitarian organizations, including those belonging to the United Nations system. It also seeks to contribute to the current debate by offering reflections on a number of relevant issues. Moreover, in order to give a clearer picture of the scope and nature of the ICRC's work in this area, the document takes a brief look at the organization's operational activities in five countries and provides an overview of its action on behalf of internally displaced persons in 36 operational contexts.


 II. The ICRC's views on certain issues associated with internal displacement  

The ICRC believes that the principles guiding humanitarian action should take into account the victims'point of view. This approach implies, in particular, that no victims should be left unattended and that all should receive protection and assistance in accordance with their needs.

The ICRC considers persons who have been displaced by armed conflict to be first and foremost civilians, who, as such, are protected by international humanitarian law. This body of law, which is legally binding on both States and non-State participants, addresses most of the problems associated with internal displacement in times of armed conflict.

When implementing a programme on behalf of the civilian population, the ICRC always seeks to identify particularly vulnerable groups. Its approach can thus be said to be oriented more towards vulnerability than predefined categories. It is evident, however, that displaced persons are often particularly vulnerable and thus included among the ICRC's beneficiaries. At the same time, the conditions in which these people live vary considerably, depending on their proximity to the conflict, in time and space, and the particular phase of the displacement. Recently displaced persons may still be exposed to the dangers of military operations, and they may be empty-handed; they may thus depend on immediate support for their very survival. Other displaced persons may have found relative security outside the conflict areas; they may have been displaced for years and have recovered some degree of self-reliance. In its work, the ICRC gives priority to the first category.

Statistics on the numbers of internally displaced persons are always the subject of considerable interest, and sometimes of controversy, among humanitarian organizations and governments. Leaving aside the occasional deliberate underestimation or inflation of figures on internal displacement motivated by a desire to minimize the scope of the crisis or to obtain increased support from donor governments, it should be noted that the very notion of " displaced person " varies greatly from one organization to another, depending on the desired scope of intervention, and that the figures are consequently often compiled with a specific purpose in mind. For its part, the ICRC reserves the term " displaced person " for those in greatest need of immediate life-saving assistance. This typically covers persons who have recently been displaced and are thus totally dependent on immediate support in order to survive.

In the ICRC's opinion, it would therefore be wrong to focus too much on figures and in particular to earmark funds for only a particular category of victim. To do so would not only be ethically questionable in cases where other categories are in equally difficult or even more difficult circumstances, but also ineffective in the context of a comprehensive approach. For instance, when providing support for health-care facilities, the ICRC is also aiding internally displaced persons who are wounded or sick. Activities aimed at providing the population with access to safe drinking water, seed and tools or food aid also benefit internally displaced persons, not only when they are the direct recipients but also when the host population is better equipped to take them in.

Another matter of concern to the ICRC is mine contamination, which prevents many people from returning to their homes. In an increasing number of countries, the ICRC carries out programmes to raise awareness of mines and unexploded ordnance among particularly exposed groups of residents and displaced persons.

Similarly, by promoting respect for international humanitarian law through dissemination activities and efforts to persuade warring parties to fulfil their obligations towards civilians under their control, the ICRC both helps prevent displacement from occurring in the first place and protects those who cannot escape it.


 III. Issues relating to cooperation  

 Cooperation with States  

The ICRC believes that the responsibility for meeting the assistance and protection needs of people displaced within a country lies in the first instance with the national authorities.

In order to meet the needs of victims of armed conflicts, the ICRC has adopted working methods that favour confidential dialogue with all the parties, be they States or unofficial groups, regular armed forces or other armed combatants. The constant presence of delegates in the field makes it possible to monitor a situation as it develops and take appropriate steps with the authorities concerned in order to prevent or suppress violations. This approach relies on a relationship of sufficient trust to guarantee access to the victims and safety for relief workers. If confidential measures do not succeed, the ICRC may turn to the international community for support, either by engaging in discreet diplomacy or, under certain conditions, by making public declarations.

In parallel to intervening with the parties, the ICRC may support relief efforts through material or technical cooperation, or by providing assistance before or after needs arise.

Finally, the ICRC may act as a neutral intermediary between the parties or between the victims and the parties in order to facilitate contacts or the conclusion of agreements aimed at resolving problems relating to humanitarian relief (such as access to displaced persons, evacuation of the wounded, etc.)

The relationship of trust that the ICRC de velops with all the parties is therefore absolutely essential. It is the reason why the ICRC refrains from becoming involved in polemics between the parties. Since humanitarian assistance cannot be substituted for political action, the ICRC also considers it important that such assistance be clearly dissociated from negotiations and other acts of a political nature.

 Cooperation with other humanitarian organizations  

Today, more than ever, dialogue among all those involved in a given situation is an ethical, legal and operational requirement dictated not only by the law but also by common sense. The ICRC believes that in a context of operational complexity, with numerous humanitarian organizations contributing to relief efforts, coordination is absolutely essential if duplication of effort is to be avoided, if situations are to be prevented from deteriorating, and if success is to be achieved in organizing enduring activities to assist the civilian population. The ICRC is therefore determined to promote real cooperation between organizations.

Given the extent of the needs, no single organization can take over all the tasks of protection and assistance for displaced persons. A well-planned and effective response requires that tasks be allocated among the various organizations, taking into account their respective mandates, expertise and skills.

The ICRC's policy is guided by two considerations: on the one hand, the desire to achieve greater complementarity between the activities of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, and, on the other hand, the firm intention of fulfilling its specific role as a neutral and independent intermediary in situations of armed conflict.

The concern for complementarity and effectiveness und erlies the ICRC's increased cooperation with United Nations agencies, whether through coordination mechanisms such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and its working groups (where the ICRC has the status of standing invitee), in the context of bilateral dialogue, or in the field where the exchange of information and constant contacts between organizations are clearly key elements of coordination.

In response to the same concern, the 1997 Seville Agreement defines within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement the roles and responsibilities of the ICRC, the International Federation, and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in relation to different situations (such as armed conflict, natural disasters and development), thus contributing to better cooperation within the Movement. The Agreement confers the role of lead agency on the ICRC in situations of armed conflict, internal disturbances and their direct consequences; the lead role is conferred on the International Federation and National Societies in the event of natural or technological disasters or other emergency situations in peacetime. The National Societies are indispensable partners of the ICRC and the International Federation, and are very often the first organizations to bring aid when a population is forcibly displaced.

Since 1996 the ICRC has engaged in active dialogue and the sharing of expertise with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially with regard to protection activities, and has encouraged them to use coordination mechanisms. Depending on the circumstances, the ICRC is willing to assume a coordination role, notably in the area of security, with regard to willing NGOs that have the same working methods.

The ICRC's cooperation with other humanitarian agencies takes place within the limits laid down by its status, that of a neutral, impartial and independent organization whose activities are guided exclusively by the interest of the victims.


 IV. Overview of ICRC activities in five countries  

 In order to highlight some of the issues raised in this document, a brief description of ICRC activities in five countries is given below. The first three countries were chosen because they were case studies to be specifically addressed by the Economic and Social Council; the two others were included to make the nature of the ICRC's involvement clearer.  



For more than 25 years the conflict in Angola has caused tremendous population movements, bringing suffering and difficulties of all kinds to both those displaced and local residents. 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 the case for people resettling in Luanda or the provincial capitals.

When hostilities between the Angolan government and UNITA resumed in December 1998, the ensuing insecurity again touched off waves of displacement, with additional victims fleeing to the urban areas of central Angola in s earch of safety. The plight of these people has been exacerbated by the regular plundering of farm produce, which continues to leave both the displaced and the local population indigent.

To help those most seriously affected, the ICRC has for many years provided protection and assistance, mainly in the conflict areas of the central Planalto, where needs are the greatest and most urgent.

In an attempt to improve a persistently precarious nutritional situation, the ICRC has carried out food and economic security programmes aimed at assisting the entire population on the outskirts of the city of Huambo and in outlying villages. The programmes have provided regular relief for 300,000 displaced people and residents. To be as efficient as possible and to meet all needs, the ICRC favours close cooperation with the other humanitarian organizations involved, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and Save the Children UK, which have conducted general food distributions for 163,000 persons in Huambo.

The ICRC also runs programmes to enhance self-reliance and sustainable development, in particular in the field of agriculture. Moreover, it has worked on projects to distribute water and build latrines so as to improve hygiene and sanitation at new sites for displaced people, especially in Kuito. There, it maintains daily cooperation with WFP and non-governmental organizations such as Care, Médecins sans frontières and Oxfam.

The ICRC's primary health-care programmes in Huambo and Uige and its surgical assistance to the Huambo hospital and to the prosthetic/orthotic centres in Luanda, Huambo and Kuito cater to the needs of the sick and the war-wounded, including a large number of displaced persons. It also cooperates on a regular basis with organizations active in the medical field (International Medical Corps, Médecins sans frontières , etc.).

The ICRC has developed a Red Cross message network enabling thousands of people to get in touch with their relatives in Angola and abroad after ties with their families were severed by the renewed fighting and ensuing displacement.

The ICRC's cooperation efforts include providing air transport from Luanda to the Planalto for NGO staff.


 The Democratic Republic of the Congo  

Plagued by conflict since 1996, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was drawn into a   major conflagration in August 1998. As the fighting swept across much of the country, involving numerous Congolese armed groups and foreign armed forces, countless people fled their homes. Many of them made their way to large urban centres, where they have put pressure on resources and infrastructure.

Displaced people and local residents have been left destitute. Basic necessities such as food and clean drinking water are frequently lacking. The ICRC is providing both groups with protection and assistance, so as to ensure a balanced approach and respond efficiently and comprehensively to the needs of those who are most vulnerable. Furthermore, family members have often become separated while fleeing and lost contact with one another.

Throughout the conflict, the ICRC has maintained a presence in territories controlled by both sides. In the eastern areas held by the armed opposition, close to 200,000 people, mostly displaced, ha ve received regular assistance from the ICRC consisting of food and other items, such as seed and tools. Moreover, the ICRC has helped some 63,000 displaced people return to their villages and provided them with material assistance to start up farming again.

In government-controlled areas in the south, where large numbers of displaced people – estimated to be in the tens of thousands – were found to have substantial medical needs, the ICRC has provided the health authorities and hospitals with essential medical supplies. In Lubumbashi, 50,000 people have received seed and the ICRC has assisted an additional 4,000 displaced persons gathered at four sites. In Kinshasa, where traditional food supplies have been disrupted, some 250,000 vulnerable people in the poorest districts of the capital have been given seed and tools under agricultural projects conducted in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Providing adequate medical treatment for the wounded and sick has been a priority for the ICRC, especially during the recent conflict between the Rwandan and Ugandan armies in Kisangani (the third largest city in the country, with an estimated 600,000 inhabitants).   The heavy fighting left more than 160 people, mostly civilians, dead and 1,200 wounded, and there were reportedly hundreds of military casualties. Moreover, a total of 7,564 displaced people were registered at seven sites.

During the hostilities, the ICRC regularly reminded the Ugandan and Rwandan authorities of their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular to protect the civilian population from the dangers of military operations. Thanks to the respect shown by the parties involved, the ICRC staff in Kisangani managed to deliver aid to medical facilities treating the war-wounded.

Local volunteers from the National Red Cross Soc iety also braved the dangers of armed conflict to offer their services.

In Kisangani, the ICRC cooperates closely with a number of other humanitarian organizations, in particular Médecins sans frontières and Oxfam. It also works in coordination with the United Nations Observer Mission (MONUC) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).



Since 1998, Georgia has succeeded in consolidating its political and economic stability. Security conditions remain tense, however, owing to widespread crime and violence across western Georgia and Abkhazia. Most displaced persons have remained in the same place for many years and their needs (such as social activities, training and income generation) now correspond to those normally handled by community development projects. Many of the facilities they use require renovation.

The ICRC is no longer directly involved in providing displaced people with food and other items, a task that is now carried out by the Red Cross Society of Georgia and the International Federation. Both organizations concentrate on rehabilitation, food security, social and income-generating activities, and health programmes for the destitute, whether they be residents or displaced persons, mainly in western and eastern Georgia.

For its part, the ICRC focuses on emergency surgical assistance for the referral hospital in Zugdidi and rehabilitation and other assistance for the outpatient clinic for displaced people in that town. Moreover, it remains ready to respond to any new population movements that may occur.

In addition to crime and violence in western Georgia and the volatile security environment still prevailing in Abkhazia, the civilian population has been subjected to acts such as looting, burning of homes and robbery. Minority groups remain potentially more vulnerable than the population in general, and the ICRC continues to monitor their situation regularly and report to the local and regional authorities when appropriate.

In terms of economic security, although the entire population has been affected, vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the disabled, orphans and large families are the hardest hit. The ICRC provides food and other assistance for more than 30,000 destitute people through five different programmes: a canteen programme, a home assistance programme, a programme for destitute persons, a partial assistance programme and an agricultural programme. Under the agricultural programme in Abkhazia, which aims at restoring self-sufficiency, around 15,000 people receive various agricultural items once a year, such as fertilizers, pesticides and seed, with technical advice given by the local ICRC agronomist.

The ICRC's Red Cross message network remains the only reliable means of written communication for people living in Abkhazia, with 56,385 messages exchanged in 1999. Even though telephone links were restored between Abkhazia and Georgia at the beginning of 1998, the Red Cross message system has continued to play a vital role, enabling numerous families in Abkhazia to restore or maintain contact with relatives in Georgia or other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The ICRC also runs a family reunification programme involving the transfer of people out of Abkhazia, mostly to Georgia.


 Sri Lanka  

At the government's request, the ICRC opened a delegation in Sri Lanka in 1989. The delegation has focused its activities on protecting and assisting civilians affected by the conflict, including many displaced persons.

The ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary is particularly significant in the Sri Lankan conflict. Indeed, the ICRC maintains a permanent dialogue with the parties to ensure that the civilian population is respected and protected in accordance with international humanitarian law. With over a decade of experience in Sri Lanka, the ICRC has extensive knowledge of the issues at stake and its work is accepted by all those involved in the conflict on both sides.

As far as the security situation allows, ICRC teams conduct regular assessments of the living conditions of civilians affected by the fighting. Allegations of violations of international humanitarian law are collected and used as a basis for representations aimed at reminding both parties of their obligations towards civilians.

Since food needs in the country are met by local authorities, the ICRC provides tens of thousands of needy displaced people with other essential supplies from pre-positioned stocks, in close cooperation with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) and other international relief agencies.

Moreover, in cooperation with the SLRCS, the ICRC tracing service enables family members dispersed by the conflict to remain in touch.

Since 22 April 2000, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) open ed the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula by capturing the strategic military base on Elephant Pass, fighting has extended deeper into the peninsula   as government forces and the LTTE battle for control of the area. Official figures at the beginning of June showed a total of 177,000 people displaced by the recent fighting on the peninsula. These people have sought refuge with relatives or friends or, when this was not possible, in welfare centres set up in schools or other public buildings. Significant numbers of civilians nevertheless remain near combat zones.

At the request of the security forces and the LTTE, the ICRC has facilitated cross-line transport and escorted food convoys, thus acting in its recognized role as a neutral intermediary. Security constraints still prevent humanitarian organizations from entering large areas near the fighting, and the fate of civilians living there remains unknown.



The ICRC established a permanent presence in Colombia in 1981. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became increasingly involved in activities on behalf of victims of the conflict and since 1996 has maintained a network of 16 offices throughout the country.

The pattern of displacement in Colombia is as complex as the conflict itself. Population movements occur daily all over the country. They can involve single individuals or groups of up to several hundred people.

The spread of the conflict throughout the national territory has led to a sub stantial deterioration of the situation, particularly for civilians. Each year, between 3,000 and 6,000 people are killed as a direct result of the conflict. The number of people kidnapped has reached 3,000 per year.

The ICRC's work is accepted by all the parties to the conflict, namely the civilian authorities, the armed forces, the police, the guerrillas and the self-defence groups. The organization makes constant efforts to disseminate international humanitarian law among all those involved.

Moreover, the ICRC carries out strong advocacy campaigns and engages in diplomacy to put a halt to abuses committed against civilians, which can obviously lead to displacement.

In the areas of dissemination of international humanitarian law and assistance, the ICRC works in close cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross. In 1999 the ICRC provided protection and assistance for some 135,000 persons throughout the country; 70,000 of them were individual cases.

Generally, ICRC assistance programmes are designed to come after those of the State and are implemented only when the State's capacity to cope with humanitarian needs is inadequate.

The type of protection and assistance provided by the ICRC in Colombia can differ from one case to another, depending among other things on the nature of the threat and danger faced by the displaced persons. The ICRC's activities are also adapted to specific needs and to the capacity of the authorities, charity organizations and NGOs to respond to them. In terms of inter-agency cooperation, a dialogue has been established between the ICRC and other organizations, including the United Nations, with a view to adopting the best possible mechanisms to prevent displacement, solve problems and coordinate humanitarian action.

In 1997 the Colombian parliament adopted Act No. 387 setting out the State's res ponsibilities in the field of protection and assistance for displaced persons. Implementation of this law is being hampered, but a Red de Solidaridad (solidarity network) has been set up to coordinate all State activities on behalf of the displaced. In Colombia, emergency and short-term assistance needs are adequately covered, but medium to long-term needs of displaced persons who are not in a position to return to their homes remain unaddressed.

Ref. LG 2000-087-ENG