Refugees and Displaced People

Summary of findings and recommendations on refugees and displaced people

The following was prepared as background material for the 2017 Conference and provides a summary of the findings and recommendations of an ICIHI report titled ‘Refugees: the dynamics of displacement’, published in 1985. 



The Commission felt that it was important to examine the different categories of displaced people and to raise public awareness of the humanitarian issues associated with each of them. It noted that in recent decades, the root causes of refugee and displacement problems have become more complex. People flee for a mixture of different reasons and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a clear distinction between refugees and non-refugees on the basis of the criteria set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention.


Categories of displaced people

Since the Second World War, the number of armed conflicts and internal disturbances has increased. Invariably, these conflicts oblige people to flee in search of security, both across and within state borders.

The movement of refugees who have left their country of origin to seek safety in other states continues to preoccupy the international community. But there is now a need for a broader approach to the issue of human displacement, addressing the rights and needs of other groups of uprooted people.  

Environmental disasters such as drought and famine are uprooting more and more people. Deforestation, desertification, rapid urbanization and ineffective agricultural policies have all played a part in upsetting the delicate balance between humankind and the environment.

The development process itself has uprooted many people, especially in situations where land has been systematically appropriated in an attempt to fuel economic growth.

A growing number of people are being uprooted as a direct result of government policies to redistribute populations from overpopulated to underpopulated regions of their country. Few governments in the developing world, however, have the resources or inclination to relocate their citizens in an equitable manner and with full respect for their human rights.  

Uncontrolled urban expansion in developing countries has placed a great strain on public services in addition to creating many other serious social and political problems. Confronted with these difficulties, many governments have resorted to periodic urban removal campaigns, rounding up the unemployed, underemployed and other ‘undesirable’ citizens, sending them to work in the countryside.

Civilians in rural areas have been also been forcedly uprooted as a way of centralizing scattered farmers into planned villages and state collectives. It is argued that by doing so, scarce resources can be allocated more efficiently. But in practice, such relocation programmes are often poorly planned and implemented by coercive means.

State-sponsored relocation programmes have not been particularly successful. Urban evacuees have often made their way back to the cities from which they were removed and villagization programmes have failed to produce significant increases in agricultural output.

The plight of these new categories of uprooted people calls for urgent initiatives at all levels of the international system. People who are displaced within their own country are a particularly vulnerable group, their rights not being fully recognized in either  national or international law.


The impact of displacement

Refugee influxes and internal displacements impose a massive burden on limited government revenues and overstretched administrative structures. The burdens on ordinary people are even more significant. Impoverished newcomers compete with their local hosts for scarce resources such as food, water and fuel. Tension and conflict can easily arise between displaced people and host Communities.

The international community has tended to perceive mass displacements as an inevitable deviation from the norm. But it is now clear that refugee movements are the product of some very profound and structural issues confronting the contemporary world. The existing legal and organizational framework of refugee protection and assistance must be adjusted to this new reality.

Both UNHCR and UNRWA, which have specific mandates relating to refugees, have had funding problems in recent years as the number of refugees has dramatically increased and the situation in the Middle East has become more complex. The funding available is swallowed up by expensive relief operations and care and maintenance programmes. The agencies working with refugees have not been able to concentrate their resources on finding lasting solutions to refugee situations.

Refugee protection is weakening, as both industrialized and developing states grow weary of providing sanctuary to large numbers of uprooted foreign nationals. Some countries have forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to their country of origin, in clear violation of international law.

States cannot be forced to respect international laws and norms designed to protect refugees. Humanitarian organizations are constrained by the realities of political power. Under certain situations they can improve the material well being of refugees and offer them a degree of protection they might not otherwise enjoy. Exceptionally they might even be able to help resolve a situation which is creating refugees. But ultimately, their ability to influence the behaviour of states is quite limited. Indeed, inter-governmental organizations are often open to pressure from states that are pursuing their political or strategic interests.


Commission proposals

It is essential to further elaborate the concept and practice of asylum. The international community must support this process by giving positive expression to the notions of burden sharing and human solidarity. States should also be dissuaded from introducing measures designed to deter individuals from seeking asylum.

Likewise, it is essential that governments deal with asylum applications quickly, thoroughly and in a way that enables humanitarian principles to prevail over political considerations. The UN and non-governmental agencies concerned have a role to play in assisting governments in this regard and in exerting pressure on them when humanitarian principles are not fully respected.

Minimum humanitarian standards
A set of minimum humanitarian standards applicable to refugees and asylum seekers should be developed and international agencies should monitor and encourage their observance by governments..States must strengthen the physical security of refugees in situations of conflict and international agencies should again play an active supervisory role in this respect.

International humanitarian agencies must enjoy free access to refugees and in situations of tension or conflict the possibility of stationing impartial “humanitarian observers’ should be explored.

There is a need to disseminate the principles of refugee law more widely, especially amongst government officials and security personnel who come into contact with refugees and asylum seekers.

There is also a strong case to be made for a critical review of the UN Refugee Convention. Can it adequately meet contemporary needs and situations? Should the victims of armed conflict, social turmoil and environmental disaster be given international recognition and protection, as with the victims of persecution?

Material assistance
Available resources must be equitably distributed among the countries receiving large numbers of refugees, and objective humanitarian rather than political criteria should be applied by donors in this respect.

Accurate censuses of refugee populations are required and their needs should be more precisely assessed.

Emergency relief assistance should be provided for a predetermined and limited period and income-generating projects designed to promote self-sufficiency should be implemented.

The value of refugee camps and rural settlements must be be radically reviewed. Beyond the emergency period, when they may be unavoidable, camps have serious disadvantages. They rarely become self-sufficient. They also produce social tensions and constitute ‘human islands’ which isolate refugees from their local hosts while creating open-ended dependency upon external assistance.

Standards of material aid to refugees should be formalized in terms of nutrition, health care and other areas of subsistence. Donors should provide aid which corresponds to real, identified needs as well as the habits and traditions of the recipients.

Durable solutions
Voluntary repatriation, as the most suitable solution for refugees, calls for a more vigorous approach on the part of international organizations and governments. While respecting scrupulously the voluntary character of repatriation, efforts should be made to create a climate more conducive to return. It is important in this connection to strengthen aid programmes for returnees. Such programmes should be long-term in nature and designed to promote self-sufficiency.

In the case of local settlement, the notions of ‘spontaneous integration’ and ‘self-settlement’ require greater attention and encouragement than has hitherto been the case. It is a preferred option for many refugees and calls for a better understanding of local conditions by aid agencies. They should call on experts possessing knowledge of the customs, habits, traditions and historical background of refugees and local host communities, in order to develop assistance projects that encourage and facilitate self-settlement.

Finally, with regard to the resettlement of refugees to third countries, regional approaches to this solution should be pursued more vigorously. When necessary, donors should provide additional assistance to the countries and local communities where refugees are resettled, so as to facilitate their integration and self-sufficiency. Inter-continental migration should be pursued only when all possibilities of regional resettlement have been fully explored and exhausted.



There is a need to know much more about the dynamics of mass displacement. On the basis of that knowledge, the international community should be able to establish a means of collecting, sifting and analyzing information relevant to potential refugee movements. Given the very rapid development of communications and computer technology, a new early warning facility should have a substantial forecasting potential.

The Commission emphasized the need to elaborate humanitarian standards and assistance frameworks at national and international level for those groups of uprooted people who do not fall clearly within the category of refugees as defined by existing international instruments. It recognized that this is a relatively unexplored field, which does not lend itself to definitive recommendations and suggestions without a more thorough examination of the issues.

The Commission urged governments, UN and inter-governmental agencies, as well as  non-governmental organizations, experts and scholars to undertake appropriate studies on such issues. There are now millions of internally and externally displaced people who fall outside the refugee protection framework and whose rights and needs require urgent attention.