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Urban IDP Response: Time To Rethink the Approach

This post first appeared on The InterDependent.

By Andrea Lari

In May 2000, Richard Holbrooke, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, called attention to the failure of the humanitarian community to address the needs of "internal refugees." These people, unlike refugees, had not crossed an international border. Nevertheless, they were displaced by war and violence and had experienced the same trauma and the same loss of property and livelihood, and faced the same future uncertainty as refugees.

It's been more than 10 years since the late Ambassador Holbrooke's early advocacy on behalf of internally displaced people (IDPs). And yet the international humanitarian system is still struggling to provide timely, adequate assistance for these populations and ensure that the necessary interventions lead to greater physical protection and well-being.

The primary responsibility to help IDPs rests with national governments. But in many cases, the response by a national government is insufficient. Often governments lack capacity or resources. In some cases, the lack of government response is less benign, and the denial of humanitarian assistance is a policy objective. There are also cases in which national armed forces deliberately make civilians flee, not to ensure the civilians' security, but to achieve military objectives.

When a government is unable or unwilling to protect and assist its citizens, external actors—both humanitarian agencies and foreign donors—intervene.

After launching a humanitarian reform process in 2005, the United Nations made some institutional progress by moving away from the so-called "collaborative approach," in which agencies shared leadership on responding to the needs of internally displaced people. Instead, the UN introduced the cluster approach. This new system provides more clarity about who should be taking the lead in coordinating "clusters"—basically outlining which agency takes the lead on the provision of food assistance, clean water, temporary shelter, etc.

The humanitarian reform process also outlined mechanisms that enabled predictability in both the response and funding required for such interventions. But the system seems conceptually framed to address the needs of a population that is well identified, physically located in either spontaneous or semi-structured sites, and characterized by limited mobility—thus akin to the situation in a traditional refugee camp.

When IDPs live in camps, beneficiaries are much easier to register, and their needs are identified by their specific conditions. In these situations, the provision of services under the cluster system is challenging but possible. Unfortunately, the cluster system has shown serious limitations in responding to the needs of up to 75 percent of the over 26 million IDPs who live not in camps, but in urban areas.

In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, local communities are playing host to those who have been forced to flee ongoing violence in more remote areas. These host communities are not rich. They lack food, proper shelter and medicine. Most receive no outside assistance. And yet they'll share what food and belongings they have until the desperateness of the situation forces them to ask their guests to leave.

In an urban context, IDPs tend to settle in the poorest neighborhoods. Many lack appropriate skills and are unable to find employment in these urban settings, where unskilled labor markets are already saturated.

In Colombia, for example—home to more than four million IDPs, the majority of whom are in urban areas—oftentimes displaced people face discrimination from both local communities and local politicians who see them as competitors for limited social services. Displaced children drop out of school more frequently, provided they can get access to those facilities in the first place. Displaced families have less access to vital health services, and their housing conditions are often more precarious and overcrowded. New arrivals to urban slums are also vulnerable to exploitation by gangs and human traffickers because few legitimate economic activities are available to them. In some cases, urban IDPs may find assistance from groups or families who were displaced at an earlier stage and thus can provide help with orientation and support.

In an urban context, there are far more actors and complexities that have to be included in devising and planning responses to the IDPs. Local municipal authorities bear a greater weight of the response than national authorities, since local social services must be expanded to accommodate more beneficiaries. Between the growing urbanization trends and the protracted nature of this displacement, development-oriented UN agencies and NGOs and the private sector also need to be part of the response process. And last but not least, efforts must be done to allow meaningful participation in leadership of the displaced themselves and of host communities alike.

It is time to acknowledge that when dealing with urban IDPs, the limitations of the cluster system—although the best mechanism the humanitarian community has developed so far—are evident. When it comes to addressing the needs of these populations, the international humanitarian system must look at alternative options that address these realities and bring greater protection and dignity for the majority of the world's internally displaced.