GENEVA (Reuters) - The international community has woken up to the tragedy of the millions who are refugees in their own country and begun to act, the head of the United Nations' refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Internal refugees -- known as internally displaced people (IDPs) -- number 20 to 25 million, more than double the nine million refugees who are recognised as such because they have crossed a border, and their plight is often just as bad, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
"This is undoubtedly the international community's biggest failure in terms of humanitarian action," he told Reuters in an interview.
The former Portuguese Prime Minister, who has been in the U.N. job for just over three months, said that the U.N. was finalising a more vigorous approach to a problem which is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa.
Guterres said that the situation in the west Sudan region of Darfur, where the U.N. in particular was accused of being slow to come to the aid of over 1.5 million people driven from their homes by violence, had helped trigger the reform.
While refugees are covered by the 1951 convention spelling out the obligations of host countries and the responsibility of agencies, such as the UNHCR, there is nothing similar laying down the rights of those who remain inside their own borders.
The crux of the new policy was that for the first time U.N. agencies, and other humanitarian organisations, would be given specific roles and responsibilities -- for which they could be held to account -- in handling any IDP crisis.
In the case of the UNHCR, which already handles some IDP situations on an ad hoc basis, it would manage camps, provide shelter and tackle issues of protection for those considered to be in danger of persecution, Guterres said.
The move should also be seen in the context of changing international attitudes to sovereignty, with recent U.N. General Assembly resolutions stressing the obligations governments had to protect their citizens -- indicating a more assertive stance on the part of the global body.
"You cannot refuse to act just because they have not crossed a frontier," Guterres said.
Apart from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia are amongst countries with huge IDP populations.
Guterres also said hardening attitudes towards refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe were worrying.
"There is a politically populist wave that tends to mix everything -- asylum, migration, security and terrorism -- and that is very detrimental to the issue of asylum," he said.
Although recognising the problems of governments in sorting out those who need asylum because of persecution at home from those who just want a better life, he said there were ways it could be done and that the UNHCR stood ready to help.
But people could not simply be packed off back home without having a chance to put their case -- as had happened in some European countries -- because that broke the 1951 refugee convention.
"We need to preserve the right of real asylum seekers to have access to the procedures -- there are quick and effective ways to do it," he said.
People must understand that the asylum issue was the "tip of the iceberg" and that beneath was a question about the standards of tolerance needed to maintain cohesion in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies.
"Either we have a tolerant atmosphere or we will have a nightmare in the future," he said.
Did you find this article insightful?