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Press Conference on Internally Displaced Persons

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There were an estimated 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons worldwide, correspondents were told this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference. That number included anywhere from 10 to 20 million internally displaced persons in Africa, depending upon the criteria used.
Present at the press conference were Roberta Cohen, co-Director of the Internally Displaced Persons Programme at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., who works in support of the mandate of the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, and Thomas Linde, Senior Adviser to the Emergency Relief Coordinator on internally displaced persons. The conference was held in conjunction with a briefing to the Security Council on humanitarian assistance to refugees in Africa by Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Sudan was considered to have the highest number of internally displaced persons -- 4 million, Ms. Cohen continued. Angola was developing 1 to 2 million, which could be up to 10 times as many internally displaced as compared to those refugees who fled across borders. By comparison, at the height of the Kosovo crisis, 900,000 people had been expelled and handled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while 400,000 had remained as internally displaced persons within Kosovo.

Concerning attempts to distinguish between refugees and internally displaced persons, Ms. Cohen told a correspondent that they were a part of the same issue. However, there was an ongoing debate as to whether the UNHCR should or could assume responsibility for assisting the internally displaced.

Mr. Linde said there was a very clear legal regime of protection for internally displaced persons in humanitarian law. Such international law must be implemented and applied on behalf of the internally displaced. In terms of the response to internally displaced person crises, the debate was continuing. However, since the early 1990s the United Nations system had been constructing a pattern of teamwork and cooperation in the field. It was a complex coordination challenge. There should be more systematic targeting of the internally displaced according to each specific context. For example, the internally displaced in Serbia had completely different needs in terms of protection and assistance than those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In response to a question on how cooperative local governments had been with international agencies concerning the internally displaced, Mr. Linde said responsibility for protection and assistance to internally displaced persons lay primarily with national and local authorities. There were various degrees of willingness on the part of national governments to provide that assistance, as well as differing degrees of capacity to do so. Very often, a country was in a state of total failure and unable to do its job. In certain circumstances, it was important for the United Nations to cooperate with governments to strengthen their capacity. The most worrisome situations were those in which there were no accountable authorities.

Ms. Cohen added that there were some countries that would not even allow the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons to enter the country, let alone examine the situation. Some countries would not even acknowledge a problem in order to avoid international scrutiny.

When asked what could be done to help those refugees and reduce their numbers, Ms. Cohen said some of the options currently under discussion were devoting resources to promoting such political solutions as early warning and prevention, mediation in conflicts, or even rapid force deployments, if necessary.

Mr. Linde added that the High Commissioner and others had stressed that the answer to the problem of internally displaced persons was, first and foremost, to be found in a political solution. While some expected a solution from the humanitarian organizations, to precipitate returns often put people at additional risk. "The key is politics", he said.