18 December 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


At a Headquarters press conference today, the top United Nations humanitarian official announced the launch of a global advocacy campaign to raise awareness about what he termed “the displacement crisis” and the plight of internally displaced persons, as well as the need to better support them.

Briefing the press on the global campaign, which would run through 2009, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that it would focus on preventing displacement and finding solutions to end it.  Disaster-risk reduction and preparedness activities by Governments were particularly important in that regard.

Also of great importance was protection legislation and measures to bring an end to poverty, destitution, abuse and discrimination faced by displaced people.  National authorities had to take responsibility for helping internally displaced persons, and the United Nations and other humanitarian actors needed to provide support to the Governments to bring displacement to an end.  It was also important to spread the best practices and lessons learned from around the world to the Governments trying to deal with displacement, he added.

“What we are trying to do through the campaign is to make sure we are building the right kind of alliances with all the United Nations agencies concerned, with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] with Member States and with civil society more widely -– and not least with IDP [internally displaced persons] communities themselves,” he said.  The focus of the campaign would be on countries with large internally displaced populations.  It would start in the Central African Republic in January and then go to some 40 countries around the world, including other countries in Africa, as well as in Latin America and Asia.

Up to 1 per cent of the world’s population was displaced in their own countries within any given year as a result of conflict, natural or man-made disasters, Mr. Holmes continued, recalling that the Secretary-General cited displacement as one of the greatest humanitarian challenges the world faced.  The number of people displaced due to war alone had increased from 19 million in 1998 to over 26 million in 2007.  That meant that people in conflict zones were being displaced at a rate of 100 per hour for 10 years.

He went on to say that the number of those displaced by natural disasters was also increasing, not the least because of the impact of climate change.  The number of large-scale natural disasters that caused major displacement had quadrupled over the past 20 years.  For example, about 50 million people had been internally displaced by a recent earthquake in China.

The numbers were only part of the story, he continued.  The real story related to the abuse, destitution and desperation that displaced persons faced.  With their status less clear than that of refugees, the plight of people who had not crossed an international border was more likely to be ignored, but their experiences were not less, if not more, devastating. 

Organized by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with support of United Nations and outside partners, the campaign was being launched on the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which were presented to the Human Rights Commission in 1998 as an effort to build on existing international human rights and humanitarian law to provide the rights-based framework for internally displaced persons.

One of the key points of the Guiding Principles was that the primary responsibility for internally displaced persons rested with national authorities, but, of course, the United Nations and others engaged on the humanitarian side were “very ready to support” the Governments in overcoming the challenges of internal displacement.

Much progress had been made over the past 10 years, he added, giving the experience of the African Union as an example.  That organization was now developing a regional treaty to protect internally displaced persons in Africa.  A summit on internal displacement would be held at the beginning of April next year to adopt that groundbreaking convention.

To a question about legal protection of internally displaced persons, he said that matter was one of the central issues of the campaign.  Those who stayed within their own borders did not have the same kind of clearly defined legal status, rights and protection as refugees.  The organizers of the campaign wanted to encourage national Governments to introduce clear policies and legislative frameworks on internally displaced persons.  He hoped that the participants of today’s high-level panel on “Ten Years of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” would hear from Governments that had been taking action in that regard.   Colombia, for example, had effectively addressed the issue, and the panel would be hearing from Iraq, as well.

Responding to a question about possible donor fatigue in connection with a large number of humanitarian appeals being made, he said that there was always that concern, but, for the moment, the opposite was the case:  the response to humanitarian appeals was becoming more generous.  Overall, the situation was “not bad at all”.

Clearly, however, there was a question of how long that could continue, particularly with the kind of economic situation the world was facing now, but, for the moment, the contributions were likely to remain at the same level in 2009 as they had been in 2008.  It was also important to remember that the focus on humanitarian issues was now greater than ever, as well as expectations for international response.  There was a need to respond to that public attention and interest.

Asked about the participation of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in dealing with internally displaced persons, he said that UNHCR had a clearly mandated responsibility for refugees, but it had also taken the responsibility for displaced persons.

For example, in Darfur, that agency was increasingly dealing with the protection of internally displaced persons and management of camps.  IOM dealt with migration and also had specific projects in some areas, which “may bring them into dealing with internally displaced persons, but they don’t have any responsibility in that sense”.  OCHA was also trying to make sure that the situation of displaced persons was addressed in a satisfactory way.

Asked about the situation in Gaza, he said that it had been worrisome for many months and was becoming more so every day.  Today’s announcement by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), that they had suspended food aid because of the lack of flour, was only the latest symptom of that.  What he feared was not only the short-term effects of continuing blockade by the Israeli authorities in response to continuing rockets, but also the cumulative effects of deprivation on the population.  That was why the Secretary-General had appealed so strongly, as he had done at the Quartet meeting, in Israel to allow regular and significant-scale supplies into Gaza.

While the situation was becoming more worrying, “all we can do is appeal again to the Israeli authorities not to punish the people of Gaza for the crimes of those who are sending the rockets, and appeal to those who are sending the rockets to stop, because what they are doing appears to pay no heed whatsoever to the welfare of the citizens of Gaza”.

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For information media • not an official record