If you are a refugee who has crossed a border to seek safety, international law offers you some protection. But if you are displaced within your own country, you are often beyond help. On World Humanitarian Day disaster relief charity ShelterBox considers the plight of the world’s ‘IDPs’
The benign-sounding acronym ‘IDP’ is jargon for ‘internally displaced persons’. These people are neither true refugees nor migrants. Because they have not crossed a border – often trapped within their own country by fear, poverty or warfare – under international law they are not the responsibility of the United Nations.
An estimated 33.3 million people have been driven from their homes within their own countries because of violence, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This figure grew by 8.2 million in 2013 alone, the greatest annual increase ever recorded. Conflict is the trigger for most families to run, but natural disasters – flooding, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, famine – also force millions from their homes each year. In 2013 almost 22 million people fled forces of nature within their own countries – the equivalent of one third of the UK’s population.
International disaster relief agency ShelterBox provides shelter and vital supplies to families overwhelmed by conflict or catastrophe. Like other aid providers, it finds that IDPs fleeing conflict are among the hardest to reach. A team from ShelterBox plans to return to Iraq in the coming weeks to assess the ever-growing needs, both of refugees and IDPs. It will also consider its ongoing aid provision in Northern Syria, which is an entirely IDP issue.
ShelterBox CEO Alison Wallace says, ‘It is a sad fact of our modern world that tens of millions of people are uprooted from their homes as a result of violence or persecution. But not all these people are refugees or migrants. Those statuses apply only once they have crossed a border. The families and individuals trapped within their country of origin may be on the run for similar reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the international community is able to respond to IDPs.’
Once across an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions, and the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations such as ShelterBox work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives, maybe even eventually return home. Life may be harsh, but at least it is not without hope.
Alison adds, ‘By contrast, the internally displaced have little protection. Their domestic government may persecute them as enemies of the state, and they can fall prey to rebels and militias. Their fate is in the hands of others – homeless, hopeless, and often persecuted in their home country.’
Under international law there are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs, and there is no United Nations body dedicated to their needs. Charities can help, using determination, partnership and diplomacy, but their donors may be concerned about intervention in internal conflicts. There has been a long-running, but unresolved, global debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR, set up to help refugees, is not specifically mandated to cover the needs of IDPs, although the Commission will occasionally find ways to oversee their protection and shelter. Some countries have also passed laws giving IDPs the right to social, economic and legal help. But these are rare.
ShelterBox has long been active in both Iraq and Syria. The UN estimates the number of people displaced by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq has now exceeded 3 million. Last August the world watched in horror as tens of thousands of Yazidi people were trapped in a siege on barren Mount Sinjar, having been forced from their villages. 300 men, women and children died of exposure before international aid reached them. Thousands were killed or kidnapped.
ShelterBox keeps prepositioned stock in Iraq, and continues working to provide shelter for Iraq’s IDPs in the Kurdistan region. But this is a harsh climate, with daytime temperatures currently of 50 degrees or more, and a punishing winter to follow.
In Syria the IDP drama has been unfolding for more than four years. 7.6 million people are thought to be displaced. There are 147 camps in Northern Syria sheltering only a very small fraction of them, just 40,000 households. ShelterBox has been getting tents and other non-food items into northern Syria since December 2012, using experienced in-country partners to navigate this dangerous territory. As the conflict has persisted over many years tents are now wearing out after long-term exposure to extreme sun and icy winters. These tents were meant to be for temporary emergency shelter, but with no ‘next stage’ solutions in sight, agencies have no option but to replace worn-out equipment. ShelterBox will offer replacement tents where it can, regardless of which agency was the original provider.
SchoolBoxes containing education equipment for makeshift schools have also reached pupils in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in the world. Aleppo is now crumbling as warfare and bombing take their toll.
ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett will be one of the team heading back to Iraq shortly. He says, ‘It is dispiriting to have to replace equipment that was only ever intended for short-term use, but there is no end in sight for these desperate families. We need to make them as comfortable as possible as another harsh winter approaches.’
Alison Wallace adds, ‘IDPs deserve our attention, not only because of their bleak existence, but because their status is so ill-defined in international law. Their need for safety, compassion and practical help is exactly the same as for those who have made it across borders to refugee camps, and if ShelterBox has the means to reach out to them, we feel strongly we should do so.’
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