Improving UN Efforts to Assist Internally Displaced People

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James LeGallais, Queens University.


One of the challenges facing the United Nations (UN) is the rising number of internally displaced people (IDP). The importance of this issue was only realized in 2018, when the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center recorded the highest number of IDP on record since records began in 1998 (UN 2020, 43). In its attempt to find solutions for this issue, the UN has adapted and created agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the UN and UNHCR have come across barriers ranging from states’ reluctance to intervene in the domestic matters of other sovereign states to budget deficits for programs meant to assist IDP. Although the UN has historically served the interests of powerful nations, which puts them at odds with the humanitarian interests of IDP, the adaptation of the Doha Development Agenda could be used to overcome these barriers.

An Overview of UN IDP Protection Efforts

Internally Displaced People are defined by the UN as people “who have been forced or obligated to leave their homes… and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border”. As of 2019, the UN estimates that there are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with over 45 million of these individuals falling under the definition of IDP (“UNHCR – Figures at a Glance” 2020). 44% of these IDPs are located within Syria, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (UNHCR 2019). Moreover, scholars concur that IDP, even more so than refugees, make up “the most vulnerable populations [as they] are unable to leave if economic crises, droughts or famine occur” (Castles, de Haas, and Miller 2020, 33).

Although protections for refugees under the UNHCR can be traced back to the 1951 Refugee Convention, efforts to provide IDP protections are a relatively recent phenomenon. Support for IDP has only been pursued by the UN following an increased international focus on human rights, in combination with an acknowledgement that it is not possible to “resolve refugee problems without addressing simultaneously the issue of internal displacement” (“Information Note: UNHCR’s Role with Internally Displaced Persons” 1998). These developments led the UN to adopt a ‘clustered approach’ meant to “address gaps and to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian response by building partnerships” (“Clustered Coordination Reference Module” 2015). The clustered approach allows the country facing an IDP crisis to take the lead in the response, in conjunction with the associated UN organization, and makes emergency funds from the Central Emergency Response Fund available to assist IDPs (UNHCR 2020a).

Understanding Barriers to IDP Protection

While IDP protection efforts have been expanded following Resolution 48/182, the UN faces a variety of barriers, notably that IDP protections lack legal enforcement, there exist problems in garnering state recognition for IDP problems, and funding issues characterize IDP responses.

First, despite the fact that the Guiding Principles serve as a universally recognized “normative departure point for dealing with [IDP]” (Technical Report on Statistics of Internally Displaced Persons 2018, 13), it is not legally binding. Even in the creation of this report the UN recognized “the significant areas in which [existing international law] fails to provide an adequate basis for their protection and assistance” (Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons, 2004). This has in part led to difficulties in garnering state support for IDPs. States recognizing their own lack of “financial, practical and symbolic resources” (Orchard 2018) are hesitant to create further legal obligations for themselves as numbers of IDPs rise. While the Responsibly to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted by the UN, upholds the right of all members of the UN to intervene in situations where states cannot afford to provide their citizens with basic rights, this has not been extended to the protection of IDP. In the absence of legally binding protections for IDP and the inability to apply the R2P, there are no legal obligations for states to intervene on behalf of IDP. Additionally, scholars have recognized ‘refugee fatigue’ whereby states respond to greater migrant protections by adapting their domestic policy to limit migration (Barnett 2010, 81, 89). This can be similarly applied to IDP, as if international legal protections were constructed for IDPs, states would be expected to respond by limiting their assistance to other humanitarian relief efforts. For these reasons, scholars have recognized that the current international refugee system is one which is defined by “an exclusionary regime, designed to keep out [refugees] from the Global South” (Castles, de Haas, and Miller 2020, 244). 

Third, while the UNHCR mandate for IDP has increased, funding for IDP protection remains scarce. The UNHCR relies “heavily on a relatively small number of governments for the bulk of its support”(UNHCR 2020c, 38), and receives essential funding for IDP operations from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (Fellar 2020). Recognizing the need to diversify their funding, the UNHCR has sought to develop partnerships with corporations to “[become] the private sector’s partner of choice on the issue of forced displacement” (UNHCR 2020c, 43). Furthermore, notwithstanding the previously discussed existence of an emergency relief fund funding for IDP protections in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have at most been 35% funded (UNHCR 2020b). Consequently, IDP protection efforts “are on the brink of being cancelled or scaled back if funding is not forthcoming” (UNHCR 2020b).

Moving Forward by Revising the Doha Development Agenda
While these issues may seem difficult to overcome, revising the Doha Development Agenda to provide emergency funds for IDP crises seems a realistic solution.

The Doha Development Agenda arose from negotiations within the World Trade Organization (WTO) about the reduction of trade tariffs on developing countries by developed countries (“The Doha Agenda” n.d.). Although these negotiations were set to finish by 2006 (“The Doha Agenda” n.d.), negotiations have stalled due to the polarization of the interests between developing and developed states, in which the negotiations would “[shortchange] most of the developing world” (Schwab 2011, 105). A modified version of this agenda would likely be able to overcome the barriers faced by IDP. This modified Agenda would require the UNHCR to create a framework of NGOs and states meant to assist states experiencing an IDP crisis. The UNHCR would partner with NGOs who agree to use excess funds from the reduction on trade tariffs to assist with IDP protection efforts. Funding could be also distributed to other UN agencies who supply immediate assistance to IDP, or it could be utilized to provide more durable domestic solution for IDP in their home country. This framework would build on the current objectives of the UNHCR to build partnerships with private organizations to address funding shortages for IDP protections. Moreover, this would promote the achievements of the WTO “who has served the world well, but… risks losing its relevance as the Doha Round continues to drain its credibility and resources” (Schwab 2011, 117). The requirements to qualify for such funding would stipulate that an IDP Crisis be investigated and confirmed by a third-party expert level NGO, in combination with the UNHCR. Otherwise the specific requirements to qualify for such funding could simply reflect the eligibility and oversight processes for CERF, which fall under the ERC and the USGHA (“The Central Emergency Response Fund” 2019; “CERF Handbook” 2018).

This would likely overcome the barriers faced by current IDP protections as it would create an avenue to allow for the protections of IDP to become legally binding. However, in doing so it would not further obligate UN members to accept larger numbers of migrants or broad financial support for IDP, but it would temporarily require states to extend previously existing tariff reductions to specific NGOs for the purposes of helping IDP. Although this provision would indirectly require an expansion of state funding to assist IDP protections, it would afford those states a better negotiating position with the Global South, nations who make up a large voting block in the UN General Assembly. In this manner the UN would continue to serve in its most useful role as a supporter rather than leader in international humanitarian efforts (Thouez 2018, 1244).   



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