The rights of internally displaced children: selected field practices from UNICEF's experience.

Author:Mahalingam, Subajini


Displacement is a critical humanitarian issue--forty million people are displaced as a result of conflict and other humanitarian crises. Approximately half of the world's displaced persons are children. Children in flight are at greater risk of malnutrition and disease, physical danger, and psychological trauma. Many do not survive. When they do, their ability to lead normal lives is greatly impaired--many have no access to education and health care. This paper examines selected examples from UNICEF's work in the field with internally displaced persons. UNICEF's work with internally displaced children and families focuses on four areas: (1) advocacy, (2) assessment, (3) care, and (4) protection.

Conclusions and recommendations are presented drawing from the field practices.

Introduction and Background

Displacement is one of the critical humanitarian issues of our time. Today about one in every 150 people on earth--a total of forty million--is displaced by conflict or human rights violations. Internally displaced persons (IDPs), those who remain within their own borders, constitute two-thirds of the total. Approximately half of all displaced persons--twenty million--are children. (1) The impact of displacement on children cannot be underestimated: many die within the first days and weeks of displacement due to malnutrition and diseases, especially measles, diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, and malaria. Children in flight are exposed to physical danger--they may be separated from their families, physically abused, exploited, or abducted; many internally displaced children lose their chances of getting an education, proper nutrition, and health care.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight selected examples from UNICEF's experience working with IDPs in a range of countries, with a view to identifying lessons that could be used to improve future work in this area. It is hoped that the paper will be a starting point for further reflection and analysis by the international community on current initiatives designed to improve the lives and fulfill the rights of IDP children.

The Situation of Internally Displaced Persons

Internally displaced persons are defined as those who have been forced to flee their homes of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflicts, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or man-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border. (2) One issue which remains unaddressed by this internationally accepted definition of IDPs is the question of when one's status as an internally displaced person ends; governments, humanitarian organizations, and IDPs themselves all have different interpretations of when displacement (or the effects of displacement) ends. The question of definition has implications for IDPs' access to limited resources, humanitarian agencies' response to emerging/recurring crises, the implementation and enforcement of national legal standards, and the long-term stability and identity of IDPs.

The internally displaced are often more vulnerable than those who choose to remain in their places of origin since they are separated from almost all of their usual support systems. Without the structure and nurturing environments of their home communities, they are more susceptible to arbitrary action by those claiming authority, more liable to suffer forced conscription or sexual abuse, and more regularly deprived of food, water, health care, and other essentials. The internally displaced exist in a legal limbo and are often relatively invisible, even though human rights laws and domestic standards apply equally to them. Though they remain under the jurisdiction of their own government, that government may be unwilling or unable to provide protection and services to facilitate access by others. The displaced may be concentrated in camps or large groups. They may need to locate in urban perimeter housing, with relatives, scattered within the general population, or in hiding, further diminishing visibility and access.

An estimated half of all internally displaced persons are children, uprooted during a particularly vulnerable period of their lives. (3) Repeated displacement can increase mortality rates by as much as 60 per cent. (4) Conditions of displacement put at high risk the entire range of rights guaranteed children by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), including survival, protection, and development. Displaced children may be denied the right to education due to a lack of proper documentation, inability to pay school fees, or their status as non-residents of the area. In Mongolia, many displaced children do not have access to education for these reasons. In Sudan, while malnutrition rates in famine areas decreased, they doubled among the IDP population in 1999. (5)

In addition to difficulties faced by all displaced children, particular groups of children may confront especially traumatic conditions. These include unaccompanied minors, child soldiers, sexually exploited children, children who have witnessed great trauma, girls, and children with disabilities. For example, in Mozambique, displaced children who became soldiers experienced additional threats to their well-being, and required special activities to help them reintegrate into the lives of their families and communities after the end of the conflict. In addition to increasing immediate risks to children, displacement has an effect on children's long-term development, increasing the risk of poverty resulting from the loss of land, inheritance, or other legal rights; incarceration or discrimination; and inability to resume schooling.

The International Response

The international response to the internally displaced has historically been fragmented and inadequate. However, the international community has recently taken significant steps to improve its response to IDPs, in terms of institutional and operational coordination.

Under international human rights law, internally displaced persons are guaranteed the same fundamental rights and freedoms as the non-displaced. However, displacement often results in greater vulnerability to human rights violations and less ability or willingness by authorities to monitor and enforce compliance with legal standards.

In 1992, as the international community began to more fully appreciate the situation of IDPs globally, the UN Secretary-General appointed Dr. Francis Deng as his Representative on Internally Displaced Persons. As part of his mandate, Dr. Deng has conducted extensive research into the issues and challenges facing IDPs and the legal framework for their protection, and has undertaken several country-specific missions to monitor the situation of IDPs directly. One of Dr. Deng's most significant contributions has been the development in 1998 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, based on his research into the existing legal protection framework for IDPs.

The Guiding Principles represent an attempt to fill an identified gap in international law. They consolidate into one document the relevant rights and norms applicable to IDPs and provide a practical tool for implementation for governments and humanitarian organizations. Although not legally binding themselves, the Guiding Principles are based on international legal standards and principles which are binding. The publication of the Guiding Principles is a useful step in increasing governments' accountability for IDPs and in bringing coherence to the international community's actions vis-a-vis IDPs.

The Guiding Principles specifically mention children, expectant mothers, mothers with young children, and female heads of households as groups that should be entitled to special protection and assistance by virtue of their unique needs or vulnerabilities. Displaced children are accorded special protection in several of the principles, including principle 11 (protection from forced labour) and principle 13 (protection from recruitment and participation in hostilities). Children's right to education is recognized in principle 23, with a special emphasis on women and girls. Taken together, the Guiding Principles provide a strong, comprehensive normative framework for the protection and assistance of internally displaced children.

Motivated by a desire to strengthen the international response to IDPs, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) of the UN established a Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement in July 2000. Consisting of focal points from the IASC member organizations, including UNICEF, the Network has a mandate to review selected countries with internally displaced populations, and to make proposals for an improved international response to their needs, including improvements in the inter-agency approach to IDPs. Since its establishment, the Network has undertaken field visits to Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The Network identified a number of areas in which the international response has been less than adequate. It found great inconsistency in defining and counting IDPs in different countries; age and sex-disaggregation of data on IDPs is very weak. Many governments fail to honour their responsibility to fully meet the protection and assistance needs of IDPs; as a result, assistance provided by international agencies can inadvertently substitute for government action. The response to IDPs' protection needs at the field level, coordinated by the UN Resident Coordinator/ Humanitarian Coordinator, has not been consistent. Part of the reason for this has been a lack of sustained donor funding to IDP issues, especially to fill the "gap" between humanitarian assistance and longer-term development assistance into which IDPs often fall. The Network also identified the need to strengthen the UN system's capacity...

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