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The challenge of protecting internally displaced persons in Southeast Asia

Cecilia Jimenez-Damary TBC.jpg

Photo by EU/ECHO/Mathias Eick on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Cecilia Jimenez-Damary is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Like other parts of the world, the vast and diverse region of Southeast Asia is not a stranger to the situation of internally displaced persons. Conflict, violence, and natural and man-made disasters have racked Southeast Asian countries throughout history, with various degrees of gravity and intensifications depending on historical upheavals and geophysical and weather-related hazards. Moreover, Southeast Asians who leave their own countries to flee conflict and violence have been known to claim refugee status or asylum elsewhere, or simply seek refuge as international migrants.


The story continues.


In more current times, a good number of countries continue to ‘host’ internally displaced persons. Since 1998, the descriptive definition of who internally displaced persons are has been accepted by the international community and applied to formerly called ‘internal refugees’. With the latter term being discarded by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are now clearly defined as ‘persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border’.


This definition re-confirms the following:

  • first, the element of force or non-voluntariness of the flight;

  • second, the place of origin as residence or place of habitual residence, which could therefore encompass non-nationals in that country;

  • third, a non-exhaustive list of possible causes for the flight; and

  • fourth, importantly, the IDPs remain in the territory of their country and have not fled abroad, thus triggering the principle of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ of the concerned state, and not becoming refugees, asylum seekers or migrants in other countries.

The situation of internal displacement in Southeast Asia bodes well as a subject of analysis and study, advocacy and protection. According to the latest figures, at the end of 2020, the year that the COVID-19 pandemic started, IDPs in Southeast Asia were among 55 million people who were recorded as displaced across 120 countries due to conflict, violence and disasters. In 2020, there was a total of 40.5 million new displacements in 149 countries and territories worldwide, of which 30.7 million were caused by natural disasters, either geophysical or weather-related. These statistics do not include internal displacements caused by man-made disasters such as development projects, business activities like mining, and other human rights violations including land-grabbing and housing evictions.


In Southeast Asia, the prevalence of internal displacement caused by natural disasters is quite striking and far outruns the figures in other regions of the world. These natural disasters can be classified as geophysical, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and weather-related, such as powerful storms and climatic variations, both sudden and slow-onset events linked to climate change. Records for 2020 show that in Southeast Asia, the Philippines had the highest number of newly displaced people due to natural disasters or threats thereof (4.4 million), followed by Vietnam (1.3 million) and Indonesia (705,000). Of these, both Indonesia and Vietnam had IDPs that remained in internal displacement at the end of 2020, with around 160,000 IDPs each.


However, conflict and violence in Southeast Asia did not abate in 2020 and continued causing internal displacements, despite the call of the UN Secretary-General for a ceasefire of armed operations because of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of 2020, the top three Southeast Asian countries were Myanmar (505,000), the Philippines (153,000) and Thailand (41,000), which retained people in internal displacement, mainly due to continuing vertical and horizontal violence and conflict in certain areas.


We have to take note that the figures above pertain to 2020 alone. In 2022, new IDP figures will be released pertaining to internal displacements in 2021 – a year of portentous events such as the escalating civil strife and military operations in Myanmar caused by the junta takeover. Moreover, violence and conflicts in other countries continue, while natural disasters are increasing in the number of incidents and their intensity.


Meanwhile, the principal questions that we have to ask are the following:


How can we prevent forced internal displacement in Southeast Asia? In the case of natural disasters, how can we mitigate the effects of these hazards?


How should the states, individually and as a region, implement their legal obligations to protect all peoples in their respective countries, enabling IDPs to obtain humanitarian assistance, and achieve durable solutions in accordance with human rights norms, and with the support of the United Nations and the international community (often more spurned than welcomed by Southeast Asian states)?


How can we build an encompassing, all-of-society approach that would effectively address the prevention of internal displacement, the protection of internally displaced persons and durable solutions for IDPs and host communities?


In resolving these questions, academics, human rights and humanitarian advocates and workers, governmental and non-governmental entities and others need to develop a multi-stakeholder approach.


We do not want to see those numbers – or worse, higher numbers – again!


Cecilia Jimenez-Damary

Ms Cecilia Jimenez-Damary (Philippines) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons by the Human Rights Council in September 2016 and assumed the mandate on 1 November 2016. Ms Jimenez-Damary is a lawyer in human rights and international humanitarian law, specialised in forced displacement and migration. She has over three decades of experience in NGO human rights advocacy for the Asia-Pacific region and teaching experience as an adjunct professor of international human rights and humanitarian law. Ms Jimenez-Damary previously acted as Senior Legal Adviser and Trainer with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Geneva; as the National Director of the IDP Project of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines; and as the government representative to the Philippine Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission for the Bangsamoro. Ms Jimenez-Damary holds an LLM in Public International Law from King’s College London, UK; an MDC in International Organizations-MBA from the University of Geneva, Switzerland; an LLB from Ateneo de Manila, Philippines; and a BSc in Foreign Service from the University of the Philippines. She was admitted to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in 1990.

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