Internally displaced persons in Europe: Another lost generation?

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 03/09/2012
  • Diminuer la taille du texte
  • Augmenter la taille du texte
  • Imprimer la page
  • Imprimer en PDF
Photo: Refugees from Kosovo*. Copyright: UNHCR / H.J. Davies/ April 1999

Photo: Refugees from Kosovo*. Copyright: UNHCR / H.J. Davies/ April 1999

The media have frequently raised the prospect of a “lost generation” appearing in Europe as a result of the economic crisis. However, a different kind of “lost generation” has been struggling to cope in many European countries as the result of past military-political crises. I have in mind Europe’s internally displaced persons (IDPs), some of whom have been facing extremely difficult circumstances for decades. These victims of past or on-going conflicts continue to need the help of the European and international community.

Europe has many IDPs in need of help

There are an estimated 2.5-2.8 million IDPs in Council of Europe member states. The largest number of IDPs, around 1 million, live in Turkey and are the victims of armed conflict and violence by state and non-state forces in areas inhabited mainly by the Kurdish minority. Elsewhere in Europe, the vast majority of IDPs were displaced by conflicts when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated more than two decades ago, and more recently, as a result of the 2008 conflict in Georgia. Thus, Azerbaijan has about 600 000 IDPs, Georgia – 274 000, Serbia – 225 000, Bosnia and Herzegovina – 113 000, with the remainder in other Balkan states, Armenia and Russia.

The plight of the typical European IDP is dire

The people behind the numbers have been thrown out of their homes and remain in a state of limbo, unable to return, utterly powerless, surviving, but not really existing. About 390 000 or 15 percent of the total number of IDPs live in collective centres (which tend to be located in vast disused buildings), makeshift shelters or informal settlements, often without any security of tenure or access to basic services. In addition to substandard housing, IDPs are often destitute with limited access to health services, education, or employment. Many are traumatised and remain vulnerable to violence and abuse. Most cannot return to their places of origin because the underlying conflict which led to their flight has not been resolved. Those who try to return are faced with a real threat of persecution.

Signs of hope

In a hopeful development, an international donors’ conference took place in Sarajevo in April 2012 to muster financial support for the housing needs of 74 000 of the most vulnerable IDPs in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro. If the funds promised are allocated and well-spent, this could mark the end of a long, painful chapter for many IDPs in the region. Georgia, too, has achieved some progress in addressing the situation of IDPs, particularly in the realm of housing, thanks to the elaboration of national policies and the allocation of significant resources, including international assistance.

IDPs have rights

As the Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation 2006(6) on internally displaced persons has underlined, IDPs are entitled to enjoy the entire spectrum of human rights, without discrimination. Numerous international instruments, notably the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, assert in particular the right of IDPs to return to their homes (if they still exist) in safety and dignity on a voluntary basis and/or to receive reparation. These rights have been recognised in a number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (e.g. Loizidou v. Turkey 1996, Khamidov v. Russia 2007, and Saghinadze and Others v. Georgia 2010). More often, however, their best hope is for integration into their new places of residence or resettlement elsewhere.

The protection of IDPs is primarily the responsibility of national authorities. However, IDPs often find themselves in situations where national authorities do not or cannot enforce protection measures. This may be due to a lack of authority in conflict areas which are not under government control, a lack of will, a lack of an institutional framework, or a lack of means. The problems of IDPs should not be politically instrumentalised and the protection of their rights should prevail.

The international community, particularly UNHCR and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on IDPs, has often played a critical role in providing assistance.

Various Council of Europe bodies have also monitored the human rights of IDPs, as well as developed standards for improving their situation.

What needs to be done

The particular situation of IDPs requires a response by states that addresses all aspects of displacement in a timely and effective manner. While international assistance is essential, national efforts must also be more systematic and vigorous. On 5 July 2012 the UN Human Rights Council adopted an important resolution on the Human Rights of IDPs in which UN member states recognised their own role in promoting and protecting the human rights of IDPs.

There is an urgent need to fill the gaps in the protection of IDPs. States should take measures to prevent internal displacement. They should improve the quality of their response to the situation of IDPs and respect their obligation to ensure access to humanitarian aid, where the states themselves are unable to provide relief.

It is imperative to develop durable and sustainable solutions to displacement.

States and all relevant parties should adopt measures for the return and re-integration of IDPs in their original communities. The precarious situation of the IDPs should not be protracted. Where return is not possible or presents risks for the IDPs, other remedial measures should be provided, without discrimination. Particular attention should be paid to the most vulnerable such as the disabled, the elderly, children and women.

In such cases states should take adequate measures to ensure the integration of IDPs in their new communities. States should ensure, in collaboration with international actors, where needed, that IDPs are consulted and participate as partners in the planning and implementation of return or of any other remedial actions.

When discussing the current economic crisis and its many victims, we cannot forget victims of older crises and on-going conflicts, the IDPs. They too must benefit from the attention and active support of European states to implement their human rights and live in dignity. We cannot let their plight persist, or Europe will be losing not just one generation, but several.

Nils Muižnieks