Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
28 July 2000
MSF activities in the field, especially during a humanitarian emergency, often involves either refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). Whether forced to cross international boundaries (refugee) or forced to relocate within their country's borders (IDP), the affected population is immediately more susceptible to illness, disease and mental trauma. For MSF, there is often little differentiation between the terms refugee and IDP. However the differences between the two often impacts severely on the possibilities for governmental agencies, such as the UNHCR, to act, particularly regarding rights to protection and assistance, which are embedded in international law. Definition of refugee and IDP excerpted from the MSF publication Refugee Health: An Approach to Emergency Situations copyright 1997 Refugees are a tragic reminder of the wars, oppression and famine that continue to taint our rapidly changing world, forcing millions of uprooted people into exile and focusing international attention onto forgotten conflicts and isolated, little-known countries. Over the past few years, hundred of thousands of Somalis, Sudanese, Tajiks, Burmese Rohingyas, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Moslems, Burundians and Rwandans have swollen the number of refugees worldwide to about 23 million (1994 UNHCR figures) while a further 26 million people are forced to live as displaced persons within the borders of their own countries (1994 US Committee for Refugees figures) Background history Refugee crises are not a new problem, but rather one that dates back to the earliest days of humanity, for history books are full of episodes of the forced movements of populations. However the term 'refugee' seems to have first been coined in 1573, when it was used to describe Calvinists fleeing political repression in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands to seek refuge with their co-religionists in France. Introduction The terms 'refugee' and 'internally displaced person' have wider implications for the people concerned, particularly regarding their rights to protection and assistance, which are embedded in international law. Refugees have crossed an international border; internally displaced have not. The United Nation's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the international community to protect and assist refugees only; due to considerations of state sovereignty, the internally displaced have not been included within UNHCR's mandate. Only on an ad hoc basis has UNHCR been involved in the protection and assistance of the internally displaced, i.e. at the request of the state concerned or of the Secretary General of the United Nations. However both groups have been forced to leave their homes and undergo physical or mental trauma before their departure or during their flight. They are then often forced to settle in an unhealthy environment, where they are unlikely to be in a position to take responsibility for their own welfare. A humanitarian health agency will try to obtain access to both groups, wherever they are, and the references to 'refugees' ... should therefore usually be taken to indicate both categories.