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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dealing With Migrant Millions




Imagine that you and your family are forced at gunpoint to flee your home; or that your house is burned down and you have to go elsewhere for food, water and shelter. You wouldn't care much where you ended up, as long as it was safe and you got assistance.


But if, in your flight, you crossed an international border, then you became an official refugee, eligible for assistance from the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees. However, if you stayed within your own country, the UNHCR would not take care of you. You might get limited international aid, but not much. Your fate would be left in the hands of your government - even if that government's oppression was the reason you fled in the first place, or if the government was unwilling or unable to allow access. You would be classified by the international community as an "internally displaced person," IDP, and largely ignored.


Of course, there is no real difference between an "official refugee" and an internally displaced person - especially to the victim. The initials IDP have been enshrined in UN and international legal documents, but they are a euphemism that allows the world to ignore an enormous problem.


As Julia Taft, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, has noted, the number of internal refugees has more than doubled during the past two decades. This rise represents a subtle but noticeable shift in geopolitics: During the Cold War, refugees crossed borders to escape governmental threats. But conflicts in the 21st century are more fractured. Internal refugees in the Congo are fleeing armies from five countries, and an even larger number of rebel movements.


The support the international community provides to such people is horribly inadequate. While Sadako Ogata, the head of the UNHCR, recently issued a more forward-leaning paper on internal refugees that acknowledged the "uneven and in many cases inadequate" response to this issue, humanitarian aid donors continue to make far fewer resources available to internal refugees than to others. Nongovernmental organizations and the Red Cross do get some assistance to such refugees, but they cannot handle the situation alone. The UN system's reliance on "coordinated" response all too often turns out to be another euphemism - for ineffectiveness. Victims fall through the cracks.


The primary mandate for internal refugees should be given to a single agency, presumably the UNHCR. The international community should consider proposals to meet the following objectives:


-Designate a lead agency for each internal refugee situation that arises and define that agency's responsibilities. In most cases, it will be UNHCR.


-Have all UN humanitarian agencies designate a single point of contact on internal refugees.


-Keep better track of these emergencies. The secretary-general should issue regular, comprehensive country-by-country reports on the state of the world's displaced people and what the United Nations is doing about them.


-Make it clear that protecting internal refugees is just as important as making such efforts for "official" refugees. Unfortunately, some humanitarian and development agencies still don't seem to see that as part of their mandate.


-Do more to support the efforts of Francis Deng, the secretary-general's special representative on internal refugees. Deng receives budgetary support for only a few trips a year and is dependent upon other UN agencies for staff support.


If we can draw the world's attention to the plight of these people; if we can pressure governments to protect these victims and secure access for aid groups; if we can design assistance programs around principles of predictability, accountability, universality - we will have taken a major step toward alleviating this problem. We can ignore it no longer.


Richard Holbrooke is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.