Protecting internally displaced persons in the OSCE area: A neglected commitment

from Norwegian Refugee Council
Published on 31 Oct 2003
OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting
Warsaw, October 2003


Country overviews

  • Armenia.
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Georgia
  • Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
  • Moldova
  • Russian Federation
  • Serbia and Montenegro
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
About the Global IDP Project
NRC field offices in the OSCE region


The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is pleased to be able to present, for the second time, a comprehensive overview of the situation of internally displaced persons in the OSCE region to the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. The report was compiled by the NRC's Geneva-based Global IDP Project, the leading international body monitoring IDP situations worldwide, in cooperation with NRC field offices.

This overview clearly shows that internal displacement still is a major concern in the OSCE area. Three million people who were forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflicts or human rights violations still wait for durable solutions to their plight. Many of them live in utter destitution and have no prospect to return in the near future as there is little hope that the conflicts that caused their displacement can be settled any time soon. Internal displacement is a grave humanitarian and human rights problem, and it is a serious threat to security because it creates or perpetuates instability in the countries affected and the region as a whole.

Despite the scope of the IDP crisis in the OSCE area, international attention to the situation of internally displaced persons has been decreasing continuously, both in terms of policy priorities and funding. In view of this alarming trend, the OSCE, an organisation that is already dealing with the issue in a number of countries, could make more use of its potential as a key regional player with a unique mandate and a strong presence on the ground to address internal displacement in a more coherent and systematic manner.

We hope that this overview will contribute to refocusing attention to one of the most serious human dimension concerns in the OSCE region.

Raymond Johansen
Secretary General
Norwegian Refugee Council


Repeatedly, the participating States of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have expressed their concern over the plight of refugees and displaced persons. They have also committed themselves to facilitate the voluntary return, in safety and dignity, of refugees and internally displaced persons, and to pursue reintegration in their places of origin without discrimination, according to international standards.1 The reality on the ground, however, is rather different.

Even though the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has decreased in recent years, safe and voluntary return has remained the exception throughout the region. Three million persons are still internally displaced in the OSCE area as a result of armed conflicts, generalised violence or other human rights violations. The majority of them continues to live in destitution and does not enjoy the full scope of rights granted to other citizens in their country. The region covered by the OSCE hosts about 12 per cent of the world's IDPs. Out of 55 OSCE participating States, 13 are affected by this large-scale human crisis. But in the absence of solutions to the conflicts which caused their displacement, and with international attention shifting towards emergency situations elsewhere, IDPs in the OSCE region are increasingly at risk of being ignored by their own governments and forgotten by the international community. The OSCE, an organisation already dealing with IDPs on an ad-hoc basis, would be in a unique position to address the issue in a more coherent and systematic manner.

A misleading decrease

The total number of IDPs in the region has slowly decreased in the recent years. Since 2001, when the Norwegian Refugee Council presented its last report on internal displacement to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the number has dropped by 20 per cent, from 3,7 million to 3 million. This decrease is partly due to the settlement, in 2001, of the conflict in Macedonia, which had sparked the latest large-scale displacement crisis in Europe. Return figures have also increased elsewhere, including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Chechnya.

The decrease of Europe's IDP population, however, does not always reflect the implementation of durable solutions for the victims of forced displacement. In Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, there have been significant rates of return since 1999. But economic depression or discriminatory practices against minority groups mean that many returnees face difficult conditions on returning to their original homes. Continued monitoring efforts by human rights organisations are therefore needed to ensure security for returning ethnic minorities.

In the Russian Federation, human rights observers are concerned that the return of many IDPs to war-plagued Chechnya has not been voluntary. Furthermore, violence continues to generate new displacement in a number of countries, such as the Russian Federation, where the Chechnya conflict often leaves civilians no choice but to flee, at least temporarily, from their homes. In Turkmenistan, following the adoption of decrees providing for the arbitrary relocation of "anti-social" groups in November 2002 and January 2003, the government decided to forcibly resettle 2,000 ethnic Uzbeks, as well as an unknown number of dissidents, relatives of critics of the regime, and other groups.

Protracted displacement

As a whole, the return of IDPs to their places of origin remains the exception in the OSCE area. In eight out of the 13 affected countries, the prospects for any return in the near future are extremely small. Hostages of "frozen conflicts", IDPs in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia and Moldova are likely to be prevented from going back to their homes for many more years. In Serbia and Montenegro, the return of Serb Kosovars is on the political agenda of the UN administration in Kosovo, but the reality on the ground does not yet allow for any significant return.

Resettlement and integration of IDPs in other areas within their country is a solution rarely implemented. Several governments have long preferred to deter IDPs from this option, as a way of supporting their own sovereignty claims on secessionist or occupied territories. At the same time, as the case of Cyprus shows, displaced communities may be unwilling to renounce their identity of "displaced persons" as long as they remain unable to return home and recover their lost property.

Despair and destitution

While waiting for durable solutions, IDPs mostly live in squalid conditions, packed into sub-standard shelters, with poor access to water and other utilities, and with very little possibility to generate income. As a result, their physical and mental health deteriorates, and reports show they suffer from nutritional deficiencies, epidemics, and social marginalisation. In some countries, discriminatory practices and policies have made IDPs second-class citizens, with restrictions impeding their voting rights, access to documentation, freedom of movement, and access to public services. With the exception of Cyprus, national authorities in charge of IDPs have been largely unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities towards these communities.

Improved international response

Since the early 1990s, the international community has come a long way in dealing with the crisis of internal displacement. The appointment of the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on IDPs, Dr. Francis Deng, in 1992 has been the starting point of a decade of significant progress. In 1998, the Representative released the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which since then have been recognised by governments, international organisations and NGOs as the authoritative tool for enhancing the protection of IDPs. On the ground, efforts have also been undertaken to improve the operational response of the international humanitarian community to the plight of IDPs, through the promotion of a "collaborative approach" between all relevant actors.

In the OSCE region, the involvement of the international community has proved decisive for the protection of IDPs. In southeastern Europe, the return of IDPs and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia has been largely seen as the result of the strong pressure exerted on local actors by the international community through intergovernmental organisations, such as the UNHCR, OSCE and other international institutions.

Ad-hoc OSCE involvement

There are wide discrepancies in the level of attention given to the protection and assistance needs of IDPs, and the OSCE is no exception to this global pattern. Only two out of the eleven OSCE field operations located in countries affected by internal displacement have IDP issues specifically mentioned in their mandate (see map). Other field missions, for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, have put much effort into IDP issues although IDPs are not specifically included in their mandate. The smaller field operations in the Caucasus have also interpreted their mandate broadly and have occasionally focused on IDPs in some of their activities. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) runs some programmes aimed at developing legal frameworks to protect the rights of IDPs. Despite all these efforts, OSCE activities related to internally displaced persons remain largely ad-hoc and inconsistent. For example, there are two countries in the region, which have major situations of displacement, Turkey and the Russian Federation. Yet the OSCE is not active in either of them at all, mainly because of political obstruction from the governments concerned.

Emerging gaps

With the exception of the Russian Federation, the immediate emergency phase is over in all situations of internal displacement in the OSCE region. Governments have progressively modified their approach to the problem of IDPs, moving away from humanitarian assistance and mainstreaming their response to protection and assistance needs of IDPs into development strategies and poverty reduction plans. In several countries, this means the phasing out of direct assistance to IDPs, as it is expected that IDPs will take advantage of the benefits provided by the regular social welfare system as other citizens do, based on socioeconomic criteria.

Although this development strengthens the integration of IDPs into existing social structures and normalises their situation as citizens, it also creates the risk that their special needs are ignored. A considerable portion of the IDP population continues to live in collective centres, have no land to cultivate, no access to other income-generating activities, and face discrimination in gaining access to public services. Moreover, their right to return home remains unfulfilled. Thus, there is still a strong need for national authorities to devote resources, expertise and political will to address the specific vulnerability of IDPs.

In this delicate transition period for IDPs, a process of shifting responsibility for IDPs among international agencies has also been going on. Humanitarian agencies have reduced their activities on behalf of IDPs, as they expect development actors to step in and provide long-term responses. In particular, IDPs have progressively lost some of the attention given to them by one of their main advocates, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. IDPs have been of concern to the UN refugee agency in eight of the 13 situations of internal displacement in the region. But the UNHCR's provision of assistance and protection to IDPs in the region has decreased in all countries during recent years. This has also affected the expertise and capacity support provided to national authorities with regard to the protection of IDPs in several countries.

A stronger role for the OSCE

The protracted displacement crises in the region and the related risks of gaps between shifting mandates and resources requires the vigilance of all relevant actors in the international humanitarian and human rights community. Due to the Organisation's extensive field presence and its multi-dimensional and co-operative approach, the OSCE is in a unique position to assist governments and civil society in developing and implementing durable responses to the plight of IDPs. The OSCE should therefore consider putting its efforts into addressing this issue on a more coherent and systematic basis and contributing more actively in the collaborative response of the international community. Following the example of other regional organisations, participating States should consider incorporating the UN Guiding Principles on IDPs in the OSCE's normative framework.

About this report

This report contains a brief country-by-country overview of current protection problems affecting IDPs. It is based on information drawn from the Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) or collected by the NRC's field missions in the region. The Global IDP Database has been monitoring all situations of conflict-induced displacement since 1998. It collects, compiles and disseminates public information available relating to the protection needs of IDPs, as identified in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Through its humanitarian activities in seven of the 13 situations of internal displacement2, the NRC has also become one of the best-informed monitors of the situation facing IDPs and refugees in the region. The NRC implements programmes of shelter, education, and legal assistance and counselling for displaced persons in the region. These activities have given the organisation a unique insight into problems encountered by IDPs in their daily life.

Each country section contains a brief overview of the size and scope of the crisis of internal displacement in the country. It also highlights the current protection problems of concern to the NRC. The country sections end with recommendations to the national authorities and/or the de facto authorities which are in charge of the internally displaced population.

The objective of these recommendations is to underscore the responsibility of national authorities with regard to the provision of protection and assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction, as highlighted in Guiding Principle 33. In line with the approach advocated by the Representative of the UN Secretary General on IDPs, these recommendations aim at supporting state authorities in fulfilling their responsibility towards their citizens and thus better meeting their obligations as sovereign states.

Recommendations to de facto authorities that have not been recognised by, or established under, the auspices of the United Nations do not imply any recognition on the part of the NRC but aim to highlight the obligations of non-state actors towards internally displaced persons who have settled in areas under their de facto control. Recommendations have also been made to international authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo, which have been mandated by the international community to supervise the administration of these territories for a transitional period.

The NRC realises that durable solutions to the plight of internal displacement also depend on political factors which are often beyond the control of the state concerned. Nevertheless, the NRC calls upon all state parties directly involved in unsolved conflicts and displacement crises to remove all causes of displacement and other obstacles to the return of IDPs to their homes.

With this report, the NRC wishes to contribute to raising the attention of OSCE participating States to the size and scope of this human crisis. It is the responsibility of states - as donors, asylum countries, providers of peace-keeping troops, and as members of a regional community committed to upholding the rights of every individual - to contribute to finding durable solutions to this crisis.


1 Lisbon Summit Declaration, 1996, par. 10; Istanbul Charter for European Security, par. 22.

2 Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro (including Kos-ovo)

3 Guiding Principle 3 (1) states that "[n]ational authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction."

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Global IDP Project
Norwegian Refugee Council
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Tel.: +41 22 799 07 00