As UN Forges Ahead on IDPs, Displaced People Must Be at the Head of the Table

Later this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, is expected to launch a High-Level Panel on Internally Displaced People. The objective is to garner global attention and support for displaced people while developing concrete recommendations to improve the approach of governments, the humanitarian system, and development institutions.

This is an important initiative since there are currently a staggering 41.3 million people who are displaced within their own countries – many living in dreadful conditions, with a growing number who remain in displacement for years. As the work of the Panel moves forward, one thing is clear: IDPs themselves must be consulted in a meaningful way.

It should go without saying that displaced people must be consulted about decisions that affect their lives. It is not just ethically appropriate, but it leads to more effective, efficient, and sustainable programs, in addition to promoting empowerment and capacity building.

It should go without saying that displaced people must be consulted about decisions that affect their lives.

In fact, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, international standards that were adopted more than two decades ago, call on governments to ensure the full participation of affected communities, especially women, on decisions about everything from education programming to plans for return.

Unfortunately, there is a long way to go to achieve the reality of meaningful participation as the rule rather than the exception. On IDP assessment trips around the world – to countries such as Somalia, Mozambique, Myanmar, and Iraq – Refugees International frequently encounters “top-down” decision-making about humanitarian and development programming, limited opportunities for feedback by IDPs, if any, as well as decisions by national and local authorities about returns and relocations that fail to involve consultations with displaced people themselves.   

In her 2017 report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of IDPs, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, noted that “interaction with internally displaced persons commonly reveals a lack of information provided to them at all phases of displacement.” To her credit, Jimenez-Damary, has emphasized “giving voice” to displaced people as a key priority of her mandate.

Developing and promoting recommendations for integrating bottom-up, participatory approaches in all aspects of IDP response efforts must also be a priority of the forthcoming High-Level Panel on IDPs. And to that end, the work of the Panel itself must be deeply and significantly informed by people with lived displacement experience through extensive consultations and by establishing clear opportunities for engagement.   

There is something to be learned by recent efforts to promote refugee participation ahead of the first Global Forum on Refugees (GRF) in Geneva this December – a high-level stocktaking and pledging event for the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). At several official preparatory meetings hosted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), representatives of refugee-led organizations had the opportunity to attend and submit recommendations for the GRF. There was also a side event dedicated to the discussion of refugee participation, not just in the GRF but in the implementation of the GCR.

This is not nearly enough. But efforts are ongoing by UNHCR and others to facilitate remote participation of refugee-led groups around the world who cannot travel to Geneva, as well as to support training in policy advocacy. The key is for participation to be meaningful, not tokenistic.

The key is for participation to be meaningful, not tokenistic.

One recommendation from the Global Refugee-led Network is for one or more refugees to be directly included on UNHCR’s GRF planning team. Along these lines, Secretary-General Guterres, when appointing members of the forthcoming High-Level Panel on IDPs, should include someone with lived displacement experience. This is in no way to suggest that one person should be viewed to represent the views of IDPs everywhere across the globe. It would, however, signal that the Secretary-General prioritizes the need for an inclusive participatory process.

Yesterday in New York, at a side event on internal displacement during the UN General Assembly High-Level Week, Ismael Gamboa Ocampo participated via video conference from Colombia. He was displaced by violence at the age of six and is now a youth community leader.

When asked about his hopes for the High-Level Panel, he said, “The Panel should strengthen local, regional, and national connections with IDP-led organizations … [and] it should guarantee that these voices are heard in political processes and in the construction of national development plans.” He continued, “As displaced youth, we don’t want to be IDPs or victims forever… We construct our own stories—we don’t let war write them for us.”

As displaced youth, we don’t want to be IDPs or victims forever… We construct our own stories—we don’t let war write them for us.
— Ismael Gamboa Ocampo

Before the parameters for the High-Level Panel are set in stone, and prior to the selection of its members, we hope that the Secretary-General and his advisors listen to what Ismael and others with lived displacement experience have to say.