Tens of millions of people have been forced from their homes during the past decade by armed conflict, internal strife, and systematic violations of human rights, all the while remaining within the borders of their own countries. No continent has been spared. Africa today counts about 10 million internally displaced persons, Europe and Asia some 5 million each, and Latin America up to 2 million. These masses in flight -- who, unlike refugees, have not crossed a border -- constitute the newest global crisis.

Internal displacement always has severe humanitarian implications. These displaced persons are at the greatest risk of starvation, have the highest rates of preventable disease, and are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses. Internal displacement is a symptom of state dysfunction that poses a threat to political and economic stability at the national and international levels. Both the communities left behind and the towns and villages in which the displaced find refuge are often ravaged. In some cases, so many people flee that whole societies are uprooted. Violence and instability can spread through entire regions, forcing neighboring states to bear the brunt of massive refugee flows. Even countries continents away may have to contend with a wave of desperate refugees.

Today's crisis of internal displacement is no less acute than the refugee crisis that confronted Europe after World War II. Then, humanitarian needs coupled with practical political and economic interests brought about a system of international protection and assistance for those displaced outside their native countries. In 1951, the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created and a U.N. refugee convention adopted. Today, UNHCR has a staff of 5,000, an annual budget of more than $1 billion, and 13.2 million refugees in its care.

But those forced from their homes who remain under their government's jurisdiction are not covered by any international arrangements. Although their numbers now exceed those of refugees, no international institution is specifically charged with their protection or assistance. The absurdity is that if these people had crossed a border, they would fall under U.N. protection.


Internal displacement became a subject of international concern in the late 1980s. When the numbers were first compiled in 1982, 1.2 million people were estimated to be displaced in 11 countries. Four years later the total had grown to 14 million. Since the early 1990s, the numbers have fluctuated between 20 million and 25 million in 35 to 40 countries.

The major reason for this dramatic increase was the rise in internal conflicts as the Cold War came to a close. The proxy wars the superpowers fought in the 1980s displaced millions of people who came into full view only as Cold War tensions eased in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The arms the United States and the Soviet Union had supplied to regimes or opposition movements furnished the weaponry for the ethnic and clan warfare that broke out once the superpowers departed. Liberia and Somalia, two countries that plunged into civil war, were among the largest recipients of U.S. military assistance in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s. In Europe and Central Asia, the collapse of the Soviet Union lifted the lid on nationalist aspirations and ethnic rivalries that displaced millions more.

Elsewhere, vast disparities in wealth, land ownership, and power have been at the root of conflict. In Rwanda and Burundi, high population density and limited fertile land exacerbated tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. In Colombia, conflict over land has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. In other cases, struggles between governments and minorities have produced mass displacement. In Sudan, which has the world's largest internally displaced population, the efforts of successive northern governments to impose Islam on the black African south have made four million people homeless. In Turkey, which has the second-largest displaced population, government repression against the Kurdish minority has sent two million people fleeing for their lives.

The 1990s have seen greater willingness on the part of the international community to intervene in these situations, even without the consent of the government concerned. A major motivation has been the desire to forestall international flows of refugees. As the number of refugees has grown, Western governments as well as those in Africa and elsewhere have become less welcoming to those in flight. Their focus has shifted to keeping people in their homelands. The U.N. Security Council justified the international community's precedent-setting intervention on behalf of the Kurds in Iraq in 1991 on the grounds that massive flows of refugees threatened international peace and security. Subsequent Security Council resolutions on Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda have also authorized the use of force to facilitate the delivery of relief and, in the latter two cases, to protect internally displaced populations.

Nonetheless, the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference in the internal affairs of states present formidable obstacles to intervention by international organizations. While some governments, such as Sri Lanka, invite international assistance, others deliberately bar humanitarian aid, seeing it as strengthening their opponents and undermining their authority. Sudan, for example, has obstructed humanitarian aid, while Turkey has blocked all international assistance to its displaced citizens. Some countries have deliberately starved the displaced while invoking their sovereignty to keep the international community at bay.


A response to such conduct requires a broadly recognized standards and arrangements to guide the actions of governments and international humanitarian agencies. The definition of sovereignty should be broadened to include responsibility: a state can claim the prerogatives of sovereignty only so long as it carries out its internationally recognized responsibilities to provide protection and assistance to its citizens. Failure to do so should legitimize the involvement of the international community. States that refuse access to populations at risk could expect calibrated actions ranging from diplomacy to political pressure, sanctions, and, as a last resort, military intervention.

Earlier this year, the representative of the U.N. secretary-general on internally displaced persons outlined guiding principles for the rights of the displaced and the duties and obligations of states and insurgent groups. These principles include a right not to be arbitrarily displaced, access to humanitarian assistance and protection while in flight, and guarantees of reparations upon returning home. While the principles lack legal force, they set standards that should put both governments and insurgent groups on notice and give international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) a basis for legitimate action. The United Nations' acknowledgment of these principles and call for their observance would be an important step forward.


During the last ten years, an array of humanitarian, human rights, and development organizations have come forward to provide protection, assistance, and reintegration and development aid to the internally displaced. The efforts of international agencies and the ngos that work alongside them are being coordinated by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Nonetheless, many internally displaced persons remain neglected because the international response is largely ad hoc. Various agencies pick and choose the situations in which they wish to become involved; no organization has a global or comprehensive mandate to protect the displaced. The result is that the needs of the displaced are met to varying degrees in some countries and not at all in others.

The United Nations' best option is a more targeted approach that takes advantage of existing mandates and capacities. The U.N. emergency relief coordinator could assign principal responsibility in each emergency to one international agency, assisted by a U.N. coordinating mechanism. When a single agency has been made responsible for a group of internally displaced people, greater attention has been paid to their needs.

Since 1992 a representative of the secretary-general has been authorized to monitor displacement worldwide, undertake fact-finding missions, open dialogue with governments, and make proposals for strengthening legal and institutional protection for the internally displaced. He has raised international awareness and mobilized support from governments, foundations, academia, and the legal and ngo communities. The position's effectiveness, however, is limited because it is voluntary and part-time. It has no operational authority and minimal human and material resources at its disposal. The capacity of the representative to act in crises can be strengthened only if the United Nations provides staff and resources commensurate with the task.

To date, the international community has focused on providing food, shelter, and medical supplies. Yet displaced persons have regularly pointed out that security is as great a priority as food. Providing relief to uprooted people while ignoring the fact they are being beaten or raped has led some to call the victims the "well-fed dead." U.N. human rights activities are slowly being integrated into humanitarian programs. A next step would be for the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to deploy field staff during internal displacement crises to monitor security problems, serve in safe areas and camps, and promote safety during their return home.

Humanitarian assistance and development agencies of all stripes will also have to become more responsible for protecting the people they assist. Many have silently witnessed abuses because of exaggerated fears that confronting a host government will result in expulsion of their personnel and termination of their programs. The effort would be strengthened if governments and insurgent groups were made aware that they were dealing with a united front bound by common human rights and humanitarian standards.


In recent years, military interventions have been more successful in preventing starvation than in physically defending people at risk. This failure underscores the need for strategies to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity that lead to displacement. Early action must be encouraged when there are warning signs, as there were in Rwanda, and forces charged with protecting the displaced must have the equipment, training, and mandates needed to accomplish their task, which was not the case in Bosnia.

Unless accompanied by steps to address the causes of crises, military solutions are only temporary. Humanitarian assistance alone can prolong conflicts. Conflict and internal displacement can be resolved only through a broader commitment to the peaceful management and mediation of disputes.

Since today's conflicts take place mainly within developing countries and may go on for decades, international development and financial institutions cannot afford to wait until they burn themselves out. By getting involved early on, these organizations stand a better chance of influencing the outcome and helping lay a foundation for a transition to peace. Even when societies are still in conflict, they can help stabilize the situation and make reintegration more likely.

In countries devastated by civil wars, up to half the population can be uprooted. Whether in Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, or El Salvador, the rehabilitation of areas affected by conflict requires the reintegration of uprooted populations. An expanded role for international development and financial institutions in post-conflict reconstruction could influence the way these societies reintegrate displaced populations. A global reconstruction fund would be an important step toward assuring such transitions. Efforts by international development programs and financial institutions to redress economic inequities could also help prevent future strife.

Conflicts that are allowed to fester can produce mass displacement and leave political and economic scars that damage the economic well-being and political security of neighboring states, regions, and the international system as a whole. The world community cannot let this newest challenge go unchecked.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Roberta Cohen is a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution. Francis M. Deng is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and has served as Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons since 1992. This article is based on their forthcoming book, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement.
  • More By Roberta Cohen
  • More By Francis M. Deng