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Prepared by Kurt Mills, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass., USA

One of the most visible results of armed conflict, as well as human rights abuses and civil unrest, is the generation of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, whether by the hundreds or hundreds of thousands. There are currently approximately 12 millions refugees around the world, as well as many millions of others who have been forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and other reasons. While being a significant effect of international conflict, and a global humanitarian problem, refugee situations have also been part of the conditions which may lead to international conflict, most notably in the Great Lakes region of Africa where refugee populations took part in various aspects of local and regional conflict before and after the 1994 genocide. Refugee crises have also been at the heart of debate over humanitarian intervention, as the international community struggles to decide how to respond to humanitarian crises all over the world.


According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Most commentators view this definition as too restrictive in that its focus on individualized persecution does not correspond to the realities of today's world. Many people leave their home and become refugees as a result of generalized violence and war.

Two regional legal instruments formally recognize this reality: The 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa notes that "The term 'refugee' shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality." The 1984 Cartegena Declaration on Refugees, which related to Latin America, also included "persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order." In practice, humanitarian agencies routinely consider people who have fled their country for a variety of different reasons to be refugees or, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees labels them, "Person of Concern" to UNHCR.


One significant critique of the refugee definition is that it excludes people who have fled their homes for many of the same reasons as refugees but have not left their countries of origin and crossed an international border. Under the terms of the 1951 convention, so-called Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) are not entitled to the same protections as refugees. However, the fact that there are so many more IDPs globally than refugees (30 million vs. 12 million) indicates that this is an important issue. There is no one agency with the clear mandate to assist and protect IDPs, although UNHCR, by virtue of its involvement with refugees has been involved with IDPs in many different instances, frequently in cases of "mixed" populations where refugees are intermingled with other war-affected people, or in situations where it is clear that IDPs are likely to become refugees.

The United Nations Secretary-General has appointed a Representative on Internally Displaced Persons (Francis Deng) to investigate and make recommendations on how best to assist IDPs. The Representative has formulated a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which bring together refugee, humanitarian, and human rights law and lay out what rights IDPs have and what obligations states have toward IDPs, based on international law. The Principles also provide a provisional definition of IDPs: "internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border." As in the case of the OAU and Cartegena documents, this definition recognizes the fact that people become displaced and thus need assistance and protection for a variety of reasons beyond simple persecution. The Representative has also submitted many reports to the UN. One of the reasons that the issue of IDPs is so controversial and difficult to deal with is the issue of sovereignty. Since IDPs are, by definition, within their country of origin, the international community feels bound by the principle of sovereignty to respect the borders of states and to tread lightly when contemplating humanitarian action, although the balance between sovereignty and humanitarian action appears to shifting, at least somewhat, toward the latter.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the main international agency with a mandate to protect and assist refugees. Created by the UN in 1950, UNHCR provides protection and humanitarian assistance to more than 22 million "Person of Concern", which include refugees as traditionally defined, as well as internally displaced persons and other war affected individuals. It works in tandem with many other UN agencies, such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Development Program, UNICEF, and the World Food Program, as well as numerous non-governmental organizations to ensure that refugees' rights are protected and their daily needs are met. In addition to background information on the work of the organization, UNHCR's web site also provides statistics and access to REFWORLD, which is a full-text database of documents relating to refugees, as well as links to daily news on refugees. UNHCR also publishes The State of the World's Refugees which provides updated statistics and thematic coverage of issues facing refugee protection and assistance. The current High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers.


The main United States government agencies dealing with refugees and humanitarian crises are the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.


Academic and Research Resources

Asylum-L - E-mail discussion list on the legal aspects of asylum and refugees.

Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement - Supports the work the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons.

Centre for Refugee Studies (York University, Toronto) - Major center for refugee related research. The Resource Centre maintains an extensive list of refugee-related newsletters.

Forced-Migration - E-mail discussion list on refugee-related issues.

Forced Migration Review - The in-house journal of the Refugee Studies Centre, focusing on the practical aspects of issues facing refugees and IDPs.

Global IDP Project - A program of the Norwegian Refugee Council to provide information and analysis on IDPs worldwide.

Refugee Studies Centre (Oxford University) - The oldest and largest academic program on refugees. It hosts a wide range of scholars working in this area, and conducts many seminars and training programs. It also has an extensive library of refugee-related resources and grey literature (with an online catalog), and is in the process of digitizing its research collection. The RSP also sponsors the forced-migration e-mail discussion list.

WWW Virtual Library of Migration and Ethnic Relations - Starting point for online research on refugees, migration, and ethnic relations.

Refugee, Humanitarian, and Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations

American Refugee Committee - Provides humanitarian assistance to refugees and other displaced persons.

Amnesty International - Works to protect human rights worldwide. Web site provides many documents, including an annual report on human rights around the world.

European Council on Refugees and Exiles - European-wide network of refugee assistance organizations. Web site has policy and research papers on asylum in Europe.

Human Rights Watch - Global human rights organization. Web site has extensive publications, including the annual World Report.

International Committee of the Red Cross - Promotes international humanitarian law and provides humanitarian assistance. Web site provides extensive documentation and publications.

International Council of Voluntary Agencies - Umbrella organization of non-governmental organizations.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - Umbrella organization of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

International Rescue Committee - Provides humanitarian assistance to refugees and other victims of conflict.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) - Provides humanitarian medical assistance.

Norwegian Refugee Council - Provides humanitarian assistance. Organized a 600 person civilian standby humanitarian force for rapid deployment to areas of crisis.

OneWorld Online - Online center for hundreds of human rights, humanitarian, and development non-governmental organizations.

Oxfam - Relief, development, and advocacy organization.

Refugees International - Research and advocacy organization for refugees and internally displaced persons. Web site includes reports and bulletins on humanitarian crises.

ReliefWeb - Online project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Provides up-to-date information on humanitarian crises worldwide.

Save the Children Fund (UK) - Worldwide humanitarian organization, focusing on helping children have better lives.

U.S. Committee for Refugees - Research and policy advocacy organization. Web site includes articles and statistics, including an online version of the the annual World Refugee Survey.

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