Invisible Among the Dispossessed: Internally Displaced Persons
New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Feb 18, 2010
After the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti, the island nation has been more or less adopted by the world community. While the hundreds of thousands who subsist on hand outs and live in tents cannot depend on their own government, they can at least expect the world to continue to provide aid, and Haiti itself is receiving donations and funds from all over the world. Equally important, it has world sympathy and attention.
Usually this is not the case. For among the world’s dispossessed there’s a sub-group of people rarely addressed by the global community, but whose numbers are growing by leaps and bounds: the internally displaced.
No legal definition exists for them. While a refugee who fits the strict definition given by the Geneva Convention is, at least in principle, provided some legal protection, such as the right to food and shelter and the freedom to practice his religion, an internally displaced person is virtually invisible, his story never told, and his rights nonexistent.
A United Nations report “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” defines internally displaced persons (IDP) as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”
It is the "natural or human-made disasters" part of the UN definition – which itself is not legally binding - that makes the number difficult to quantify and monitor. Do the 100 million or so roaming Chinese within the country because of industrial pollution that’s devastated their agricultural land or displacement by a government building project count as refugees? And what do we know about the number of Burmese displaced by Hurricane Nagis?
Internally displaced persons often suffer more than refugees, for along with being forced to flee, they fail to cross an international border and thereby don’t legally qualify as refugees. Instead of receiving international protection and capturing media coverage, many remain invisible and are often subjected to abuse within their own country. When their government is uncaring or fails to protect them, and, as in the case of Myanmar, refuses foreign aid and restricts the international media, very little protection for IDPs can be had.
The internally displaced can be found in more than two dozen countries around the world. There are 2 million of them in Colombia, half a million in the Ivory Coast, more than 3 million in Pakistan, just to name a few countries.
And the numbers add up. According to the UNCHR 2009 annual report there are 42 million uprooted people in the world. The total includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million uprooted people within their own countries. But some organizations estimate that the actual number of IDP is easily twice the number of internationally recognized refugees, if not triple that amount. The figure can fluctuate due to, for example, the sudden outbreak civil war or a natural disaster such as an erupting volcano, tsunami or earthquake.
Distributions of food and medicine vary from place to place, and IDP protection depends on where they find themselves and which country they are in. Haiti is but a quick jump over from the United States. Food and supplies and media coverage came relatively quickly – if chaotically - for earthquake victims. But after five years of civil war in Darfur, hundreds of villages have been destroyed, 400,000 have died, and 2.2 million are displaced and facing starvation and ongoing violence. It's a humanitarian crisis in which the international response is shockingly slow and ineffectual, and world attention is sporadic.
And where’s the limelight for the millions displaced in The Democratic Republic of Congo, where 45,000 people continue to die each month, and nearly 6 million people have died from long drawn out war and famine?
Refugees and IDP are essentially the same. Both groups are coerced or compelled to flee in fear for their lives and security, but those who crossed internationally recognized state borders are entitled to systematic protection and assistance under existing international treaties, while those who don’t are entitled to little and remain cursed with invisibility.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper recently wrote in his blog that he cried in Haiti while reporting on the devastation in Port-au-Prince. Alas, there aren’t enough Anderson Coopers to cry in the places in which the number of the dispossessed keeps growing. They have no protection and little assistance, and they have no celebrity-journalist to cry over their misfortune.
Three decades ago, Pope John Paul II called the plight of refugees "the greatest tragedy of all human tragedies" and "a shameful wound of our time." In the 21st century, that wound has festered and gangrened. How effectively we address it will largely determine the future of our global society. For the plight of all refugees should challenge our conscience, as silence and indifference constitute the sin of omission.
Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.. His next book is "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, due out in September, 2010.
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