Global displacement has hit a new high, uprooting 68.5 million people from their homes, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported last month. Yet that headline figure can obscure the fact that most of those people are not refugees. A staggering 40 million people were displaced within their own country by the end of 2017.
More than 10 percent of those internally displaced around the world live in just one country – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I just returned from a visit to the DRC with a Refugees International team to assess the situation for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the eastern region of the country. The dire conditions and aid gaps we encountered reflect an urgent need to reform the global system for responding to the needs of IDPs.
In the DRC, myriad armed groups are fighting with each other for land and resources, often preying upon the local population. The government in Kinshasa lacks the means or the will to protect these civilians. Persistent cycles of violent conflict have left 4.5 million people displaced inside the country – many of whom have been forced from their homes multiple times.
In Beni, in the eastern province of North Kivu, we met IDPs who had fled massacres in the surrounding rural areas and were living with host families in the city. Some had been displaced since 2014. Others had arrived just three weeks prior. Very few had received any humanitarian assistance. Many were struggling to eat. A number of aid organizations operate in the region, but due to a lack of resources and capacity, few provide services in the city of Beni itself. As one aid official told us, “It is a forgotten crisis.”
More than 10 percent of those internally displaced around the world live in just one country – the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Further to the north, in the province of Ituri, a recent resurgence of major violence has forced nearly 350,000 people from their homes since the beginning of this year. Humanitarians are trying to respond, but a lack of funds has slowed that effort. Aid groups are left to make painful choices – cutting services elsewhere in order to meet urgent needs in Ituri. Additionally, there are problems with coordination. Some IDPs receive monthly food distributions, while others we spoke to receive none.
The U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were established 20 years ago. They state, “National authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction.” However, in the DRC, as in many other countries experiencing IDP crises, the government is unable to respond adequately to the emergency needs.
To fill the gap, humanitarian agencies work through a U.N. coordination system organized by a “cluster” for each sector – such as health, food, shelter and education. These clusters are led by different U.N. agencies. However, no single agency or cluster holds clear responsibility for or accountability to the IDP population. Gaps in services often go unaddressed.
“It is a forgotten crisis.”
To its credit, UNHCR, which has an international mandate to assist and protect refugees, is working to become a “first port of call” for IDPs as well. However, additional changes at the global level are needed to draw in badly needed funding for IDP crises, improve accountability within the humanitarian system and enhance coordination.
An important first step would be for the U.N. secretary-general, with the support of U.N. member states, to establish the position of special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) for IDPs. While there is currently a U.N. special rapporteur (SR) for the human rights of IDPs who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council, that official receives no salary or staff and maintains a budget for only two field assessments per year.
In 1992, the U.N. secretary-general established, through a mandate from the Commission on Human Rights, the position of representative of the secretary- general on IDPs. In 2004, the title changed to representative of the secretary- general on the human rights of IDPs. Those positions also had limited resources.
However, in addition to conducting multiple country visits and providing reports to the U.N. human rights body and the General Assembly, they at least maintained a direct link to the secretary-general. That connection was severed in 2010 by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when the position was downgraded to special rapporteur due to a re-prioritization of staff appointments.
The connection to the secretary-general must not only be re-established, but the position must be elevated and well-resourced. An SRSG for IDPs should have direct access to the highest levels of U.N. leadership and bring political capacity to mobilize attention and resources to IDP crises. In addition to reporting directly to the secretary-general, the SRSG should also be called upon to brief U.N. member states on a regular basis following missions to the field.
No single agency is held to account for identifying gaps and leading an effective IDP response inside existing resources.
At the country level, an SRSG should help troubleshoot the international response to an IDP crisis and bring pressure to bear in host governments to respond to the needs of their people. Additionally, an SRSG would have both the rank and access to help hold UN agencies, funds and programs accountable for their role in an IDP response.
In the DRC, for example, the lack of humanitarian funding is not the only challenge. No single agency is held to account for identifying gaps and leading an effective IDP response inside existing resources. An empowered representative on IDPs should be responsible for making concrete recommendations for agencies to work toward a better coordinated and strategic response – one that does not leave large groups of displaced people, like in Beni, almost completely unassisted.
The establishment of an SRSG is in no way a panacea. We cannot let governments off the hook for the responsibility to protect and support their own people, while addressing the root causes of displacement. But as I witnessed these past few weeks in the DRC, the current system is wholly inadequate for the needs. And given the scale of the IDP crisis at the global level, appointing an SRSG is probably the least we can do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.