IDPs: the forgotten refugees

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), along with organisations like Human Rights Watch, closely monitors the plight of internally displaced people (IDPs) in conflict-ridden regions spanning from Sudan to Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently stationed at the Thai/Burma border, this report is dedicated to shedding light on the refugee and IDP crisis, drawing upon firsthand interviews and examples from the ongoing conflict in Burma.

The distinction between refugees and IDPs is often misunderstood, with many erroneously assuming that all those displaced by conflict fall under the protection of the UN refugee mandate. However, it's crucial to recognise that there are various categories of individuals fleeing conflict who may not meet the strict criteria for refugee status. Shockingly, there are more than twice as many IDPs as refugees in the world.

In 2023, across the world, there were about 30 million refugees and 71.1 million internally displaced people (IDP), including asylum seekers and other categories of displaced people. The UNHCR estimates that roughly 110 million people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes because of conflicts or disasters. On its website, the UNHCR defines refugees as "people who have fled their countries to escape conflict, violence, or persecution and have sought safety in another country."

The top ten countries that refugees are coming from are Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s IDPs live in Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ukraine, Colombia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. The Sudan conflict fuels the world’s largest internal displacement.

Silent suffering

While the refugee crisis regularly makes the news, and refugees are generally accessible to aid workers and news media, the UN refers to the IDPs as an invisible crisis. IDPs have no special legal status and no international protection. Large aid organisations, including the UN, will often not help IDPs because they would need permission from the offending government to enter the country and reach them. Burma is a very good example of this.

As of year-end 2023, Myanmar had 2.6 million IDPs. Thanks to smartphones, people stationed along the border receive updates from IDPs all over Burma of government attacks, causing whole villages and towns to flee to the jungle, but it is difficult, unlawful, and very dangerous, and often impossible to get aid to them.

Roughly one-third of displaced people lose their jobs, while 68 percent find it difficult or impossible to feed themselves and their families. In an interview, Thaw Reh Est, the second Secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), representing the Karenni ethnic minority people displaced by the war in Burma/Myanmar, explained how becoming an IDP leads to suffering.

“About 50 percent are not able to do their farming. Many need to rely on other donors for support to have food.”

When he speaks of donors, he means money and aid sent from relatives and diaspora abroad, not aid from NGOs and international organisations. A central problem faced by IDPs in conflict zones is that most international and aid organisations will not break the law. And so, they can only operate if given permission by the government. In the case of Burma, as with many other conflicts, the government is not only refusing to acknowledge the existence of the IDPs, but it is the government that caused the IDPs by bombing the civilian population.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Another issue faced by IDPs is that they are often in dangerous conflict zones, where some NGOs and organisations dare not tread. In Myanmar, as in many other conflict zones, the bombing continues. And with no special international status for IDPs, the government forces see them as targets.

Thaw Reh Est said,

“We guess starting from this season, a bit more people will be able to do their farming because we pushed the army back, and there is more space where the people are able to grow food. But, we cannot control the sky, so still there are risks. What the army always did, is the airstrikes always target the schools and churches and clinics and hospitals and stores of food supply and the monasteries.”  

Some IDPs will attempt to flee the country and become refugees, while others, not wanting to give up their homes and their way of life, will wait in the jungle until the fighting passes and then return to their villages.

Hazardous homes

Mehren, a Home Affairs Diplomat for the Karenni government in exile, explained that even after the army moves on, the villages are not safe. He explained, “Every time the Tatmadaw (Burma army) retreats, they deploy landmines. He lifted up his trouser leg to display his prosthetic leg, the result of Tatamdaw mine laid near an IDP camp. “The landmines are a big problem.”

He said, shaking his head, “If we want to return to our homes, we have to clear them first. And also mortar shells and bombs that did not explode. It must depend on the soil. If it is soft, it will not explode. If it is hard, easy to explode.”

In addition to the need for aid for IDPs, Mehren stressed the need for education:

“The villagers are not aware. They just take the unexploded shells and put them somewhere. I went to see a friend, and a farmer had put the shell on his farm because he thought it was safe, because it did not explode. We told him it can explode; it is dangerous. They don’t know. We have to educate them.”

The Karenni people are arguably one of the most displaced groups on Earth. Out of a total population of about 400,000, an estimated 350,000 are displaced. However, the official number of refugees stands at around 30,000, as only those in registered camps in Thailand are counted.

David Eubanks, leader of the Free Burma Rangers, a cross-border aid organisation, spoke via satellite phone from inside Karenni State, where intense fighting has been ongoing. He said,

"I just did a kids’ program yesterday. At first, they are scared. You show up, and there are airstrikes and all these things. They are hiding in the jungle. And then you start dancing and clapping, and they start clapping and smiling. We show love for each other and realise, ‘Oh, the world’s not over yet. We have hope.’”

He confirmed that aid from international organisations is not reaching internally displaced persons (IDPs):

“There’s very little help coming in. Most of it’s from very small local organisations. And my appeal is that people will provide direct assistance to the ethnic groups in need. They have very long-standing, 70-year-old mechanisms to distribute relief transparently, accurately, efficiently, and many times cheaper than anyone else can do it."

While big-name celebrities and politicians petition for the rights of refugees and for aid to refugees, few mention the IDPs, who are a much larger group. Next, the covenants of most established charities and NGOs prevent them from violating local laws. They will only work if a government invites them, and in cases where government atrocities created the problem, governments are unlikely to do that.

Next, escaping on foot with their families and few possessions, IDPs tend to be relatively close to or inside of conflict zones, making the provision of aid even more problematic. Under international law, IDPs have no particular status, apart from rules of engagement protecting non-combatants. But government forces continue to attack them.

Finally, even if they can return, their villages, homes, and fields may be completely destroyed, and the area may be unsafe as a result of mined and unexploded ordnance. And, of course, demining, like other forms of aid, can only happen with government approval.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Pexels


Showing 2 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.