New York Times- January 14, 2000
U.N. Studies How Refugees Qualify to Get
NITED NATIONS, Jan. 13 -- Civil war in Angola has driven
more than 370,000 people from the country, and everyone agrees
that they are refugees. An additional one million to two million people
have fled their houses, but have not crossed a border. This, in the eyes of
the United Nations, makes them "internally displaced people," ineligible
for international refugee aid.
Why the difference?
The Security Council confronted this question today in a debate that
demonstrated how new wars demand new definitions and, probably, new
policies, if millions of people they have made homeless are to survive.
Refugee experts say 20 million or more people have abandoned their
houses, driven forcibly by governments and guerrilla armies or voluntarily
in search of safety, but they remain in their own countries.
That means that they fall outside the purview of the organization's High
Commissioner for Refugees.
The high commissioner, Sadako Ogata, who has pushed hard in recent
years to include millions of the internally displaced within her
organization's reach, told the council that the war had displaced 20
percent of Angola's population. Most, Mrs. Ogata said, are ineligible for
"The difficulty of having access to large numbers of people in insecure
and isolated areas is compounded by the complexity of assisting civilians
in their own country, where their own state authorities or rebel forces are
frequently the very cause of their predicament," Mrs. Ogata said.
The United States representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, urged the
council to rethink how the refugee organization could be retooled to meet
a crisis that exists around the world, but is most immediately catastrophic
"To a person who has been driven from his or her home by conflict,
there's no difference" between a refugee and an internally displaced
person "in terms of what's happened to them," Mr. Holbrooke said.
"They're equally victims. But they're treated differently."
Mr. Holbrooke, the council president this month, had summoned experts
to review refugee policies in Africa. But the debate soon broadened to
the anomaly of continuing to hold to definitions written into the mandate
of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office when it
was created after World War II. At that time, most displaced people
were fleeing from country to country.
The issue is moving to the center of debate among refugee experts who
have seen aid agencies become overwhelmed by the scale and
circumstances of recent internal displacements and refugee movements,
sometimes so tangled that sorting out people is nearly impossible. This
has been the case in Africa, the Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere.
In some conflicts, governments are reluctant to open their borders to
international aid, as Russia is in Chechnya and India in occupied
Kashmir, because the conflicts are considered internal security matters.
There are also forced population resettlements in the name of
antiterrorism or for large development projects.
A recent study published jointly by the Brookings Institution and the
United States Committee for Refugees, both in Washington, called the
internal displacement of people "one of the most pressing humanitarian,
human rights and political issues now facing the global community." It
urged the United States, both the Clinton administration and Congress, to
devise policies on the displaced as effective and generous as existing
American programs for refugees.
Roberta Cohen, the co-director of a Brookings program on the internally
displaced and the co-author, with Francis Deng, a special representative
of Secretary General Kofi Annan, of "Masses in Flight" (Brookings,
1998), said today that establishing another agency solely for this problem
"The political will is not there, nor the resources," Ms. Cohen told
Nevertheless, she said, the situation is "an absurdity" that treats one
group of people inside a border differently from other members of the
same group a few miles away on the other side.
"There is now a realization that we've got to have an international system
that addresses the needs of people on both sides of this border," she
said. "We are not set up to do it."
Mr. Holbrooke argued that the High Commissioner for Refugees offices
was the most logical agency to concentrate efforts.
"What we must do," he said, "is expand the definition of what is a
refugee, erode if not erase the distinction between a refugee and a person
who is internally displaced, deal with these problems, fix the responsibility
more clearly in a single agency and not fall back on one of the worst of all
euphemisms: 'We're coordinating closely.' "