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Expert Opinion

Making the invisible visible – and empowered

Photo: Irregular Migration Trail - Afghanistan to Europe. NRC/Jim Huylebroek

Internal displacement has been driven to the forefront of humanitarian debate in recent months amid concerns that the issue of IDPs does NOT feature sufficiently high up on the global policy-setting agenda and risks being further marginalised in international affairs. The New York Declaration that emerged from the 2016 UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants basically set aside this issue even though it is unquestionably linked to that of refugees and migrants. This situation necessitated the “Open Letter” entitled “Invisible Majority: Helping Internally Displaced People” co-signed and published by my predecessor with OCHA, UNDP, NRC and IRC last September.

On assuming my mandate in November 2016, I was drawn to the many achievements of my prestigious predecessors in bringing to the fore the issue of IDPs, which before that had been totally neglected. I still remember the time when, as a practitioner and advocate, we dealt with the “problem” of “internal refugees” and had no Guiding Principles to rely on. Humanitarian work was haphazard and relied completely on human rights advocacy. With the recognition of the primary responsibility of states for addressing the plight of IDPs, particularly through the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the evolution of the work of the Special Rapporteur and the international community (i.e. creation of the cluster system), ensuring the human rights of IDPs has become increasingly recognised as a valid, legitimate and necessary endeavour, both for national jurisdictions and the international community. The establishment of IDMC was a welcome addition to the stakeholders working on IDPs because of its monitoring, analysis and data-gathering functions. At regional level, the adoption of the Great Lakes Pact and the Kampala Convention were exemplary breakthroughs. At national level, more and more states, including those with IDPs, now acknowledge their primary responsibility through the enactment of laws and policies to protect IDPs.

But more needs to be done

The main lesson learned from recent months, exemplified by the respective outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit in May and the UN Summit in September, is that greater recognition of IDPs and their human rights will require further efforts by various actors. This will entail simultaneous political will on the part of international agencies and especially states to ensure that IDPs are never forgotten. The approaches towards migrants, refugees and IDPs will need to be synchronised in order to assure effective and relevant policies as well as appropriate levels and allocation of funding.

Human Rights of IDPs at the core

In order to confront these challenges, as the mandate holder I believe that the focus of building such political will would benefit enormously from the application of human rights based approaches. With universal human rights as the framework, states, agencies, organisations and donors can address the needs of IDPs systematically and thoroughly, by preventing arbitrary displacement, protecting IDPs during displacement, and achieving durable solutions. The UN Guiding Principles on IDPs represent a brilliant one-stop source of what these human rights obligations are. The benchmarks for durable solutions for IDPs, as contained in the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions, are based on accepted human rights standards. In fact, there has never been such a plethora of sources, references and guidance to address the situation of IDPs, especially those displaced by conflict and natural disasters. Experience shows that the achievement of durable solutions is complex and long term and necessitates a combination of humanitarian and development approaches.

In reference to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Agenda for Humanity, the “Open Letter” stated: “There can be no sustainable development if the more than 40 million internally displaced people are left behind.” And those IDPs cited concerned only those displaced by conflict and generalised violence.

So what next?

In order to contribute to making the invisible visible, I would like to address one essential issue throughout my mandate: the need for a genuine participation of the IDPs themselves in all phases of efforts to address displacement issues that directly concern them. This need is stated in many sections of the Guiding Principles, is rooted in the rights of IDPs to recognition as legal personalities and to participation in the political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society, and is recognised in many laws and policies. The engagement of IDPs in helping to resolve the causes of displacement, in protection and in finding durable solutions will assist states in enabling relevant, effective and efficient ways to address the many facets of internal displacement. Moreover, such engagement will encourage ownership and the long-term resilience of IDP communities.

This in turn will empower IDPs to become part of the solution, rather than merely a “problem”. For this to happen, I encourage all stakeholders to devote particular attention to the human rights of IDPs. And hopefully, we will raise their profile and visibility ─ AND empower them to play an active role in determining their fate.

About the author


Cecilia Jimenez-Damary is the new Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs. She has worked in the field of human rights for nearly 30 years at the local, national and international levels with NGOs, national human rights institutions, UN agencies and governments. Since 2013, she has worked as National Manager of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights’ special project on Internally Displaced Persons. Prior to that, she worked for five years at IDMC as a Senior Legal Advisor and Training Officer, where, among other valuable contributions, she developed the IDMC training module on durable solutions to displacement.