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Southern Africa: Conflict, development and natural disasters fuel internal displacement

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
JOHANNESBURG, 14 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - Internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain a problem in Southern Africa, despite the resolution of many of the conflicts that forced people to flee their homes.

According to a summit paper produced after the Regional Seminar on Internal Displacement in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region, held in Botswana late last year, more than 10 percent of the world's internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in SADC member states.

Although many people continue to be forced from their homes due to factors such as natural disasters or to make way for development projects, there is a distinct lack of specific data on IDPs in the SADC region.

Seminar participants agreed that IDPs faced inequities in accessing international humanitarian relief and protection. "Unlike refugees, there was no established international regime to ensure their protection," the report noted.

"Nonetheless, it was evident that the causes of internal displacement in the SADC region were diverse and interrelated. For example, it was pointed out that displacement had been a defining feature of colonialism in Southern Africa, particularly in the case of South Africa under the apartheid regime. It was noted that the contemporary effects of colonial displacement policies have not yet been fully acknowledged or addressed," the report said.

IDPs often became refugees when effective national protection and assistance were not available, while returning refugees who came home to insecurity and a lack of sustainable solutions often became internally displaced, according to Walter Kalin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General, who noted that IDPs and refugees frequently faced similar risks and their plights could be interconnected.

Ebrima Camara, Regional Representative of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, noted that the agency was in the process of elaborating its commitment to supporting displaced persons. Specifically, the High Commissioner for Refugees had offered UNHCR's leadership in three key areas: protection, camp coordination and emergency shelter.

Armed conflict was highlighted as a major cause of displacement in the post-colonial era. Civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo sparked massive displacement crises and generated thousands of new IDPs, "even as other IDPs were making the difficult journey home".

"Human rights violations and political violence also fostered internal displacement, in many cases targeted along ethnic or religious lines," the paper observed.

Natural disasters have also caused widespread internal displacement in the SADC region, for example, cyclones in Madagascar, floods in Mozambique and volcanic eruptions like Karthala in the Comoros, prompting sudden mass movements to avoid danger.

"Moreover, the ongoing drought in Southern Africa has forced people from their homes by fostering persistent food insecurity," the report commented. The impact of natural disasters could have been mitigated through early warning and disaster-preparedness systems, but in many cases these measures were often either non-existent or failed to function properly.

Development-induced displacement was another factor influencing population movements. "Mining-induced displacement ... was one of the most under-reported causes of displacement in Africa, and one that was likely to increase, as mineral extraction remained a key economic driver in the SADC region," the report remarked.

The displacement of the San people, or 'Bushmen', from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, allegedly to open the park to diamond mining, was one such example.

Urban renewal schemes also contributed to internal displacement, with the government of Zimbabwe's recent Operation 'Murambatsvina' (Drive Out Filth) cited as being of particular concern.

While a government had the right to renew and develop decaying urban environments, "it was essential to carry out such projects in accordance with internationally accepted standards upholding the rights of those at risk of displacement".

A report by the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, noted that Operation Murambatsvina was conducted in an "unplanned and over-zealous manner which ... unleashed chaos and untold human suffering" on the 700,000 people left homeless or without livelihoods.

It was recommended that SADC governments "address the root causes of internal displacement" in order to "mitigate the conditions that leave populations vulnerable to displacement by promoting reconciliation and peace-building activities ... pursuing rights-based development strategies and addressing food insecurity in the SADC region".

States had to facilitate humanitarian access to IDPs and improve data collection on internal displacement. "Governments, academic institutions and international agencies should collaborate to improve methods to gather, analyse and disseminate data on the conditions and needs of IDPs," the paper suggested.

The complex question of when displacement ends also had to be addressed. For example, many of those displaced during Angola's decades of war have chosen to settle in areas of displacement rather than return to their areas of origin.

Increased efforts to tackle the specific needs of IDPs with "heightened vulnerability", such as women and children, were urgently needed, as was the inclusion of IDPs in comprehensive HIV/AIDS programmes.

[ENDS]