Dame Caroline Spelman MP hosts debate about Internally Displaced People

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On the 25th April the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP hosted a debate in Westminster Hall to highlight the plight of Internally Displaced People. The Minister of State for the Department for International Development, the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP responded to the debate on behalf of the Government. The full debate can be read using the link below.


Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered a strategy for internally displaced people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the Speaker’s Office for granting this debate. I am particularly grateful to my colleagues for giving up time on such a busy afternoon—mid-week, on a Wednesday—to address the important issue of internally displaced people.

I have no doubt that many hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall now will have called in this morning to Christian Aid’s big breakfast meeting; if they did not, they really missed out on an excellent breakfast. That meeting was designed to draw attention to the issue of internally displaced people. I take this opportunity to thank Christian Aid, both for hosting that event and for its wider campaign to raise the profile of the issue. That will also help to give a focus to Christian Aid Week, which comes up very shortly, in May.

Internally displaced people, or IDPs for short, are people who have been displaced from their homes by conflict or disaster, often for very long periods of time. That might sound like an appropriate definition of refugees, but IDPs differ from refugees in one respect, namely that they have not gone across an international border. They have been displaced within their own country. Precisely because of that fact, they are not afforded the same rights and support that refugees have under the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees .

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN’s own guiding principles on internal displacement. Those principles were established to address some of the concerns about IDPs and their exclusion from the earlier UN convention on refugees. However, at the time that those principles were conceived, the problems that IDPs faced were very different from those that IDPs face today.

Twenty years ago, refugees far outnumbered IDPs. In 1998, it was estimated that there were approximately five million IDPs, compared with about 11.5 million refugees. The interesting thing is that that situation is more or less reversed today. There are more than 40 million IDPs, compared with 22.5 million refugees. Both categories have increased in number, but their proportions have been almost exactly reversed.

Many IDPs have been repeatedly displaced for long periods of time, with the average length of displacement for IDPs now being 15 years. Just imagine being a child in a family that has been internally displaced; most of a person’s childhood, up to adulthood, would have been spent in this limbo position.

Lengthy internal displacement has become a global phenomenon and it must be properly accounted for when we consider how we can support and protect those who become the victims of forcible displacement. With that in mind, it is concerning that the zero draft of the UN’s global compact on refugees, which was published in January and will provide the basis for formal talks about how the international community should respond to refugee crises, contains little discussion of the unique and huge problems faced by IDPs.

IDPs are often excluded from the support offered to refugees. That is partly because, having not crossed a border, they are actually quite hard to identify. The vast majority of IDPs do not enter camps, as refugees do. Instead, on average, 75% of IDPs stay in host communities. In Iraq, the figure is as high as 90%. IDPs in host communities are not as well documented as refugees in camps, and they are therefore much harder to find and identify. If IDPs go undocumented, it is difficult to provide them with the proper support that they need.

A further reason for the exclusion of IDPs is that, because they have not crossed an international border, they remain the responsibility of the state within which they have been displaced. Unsurprisingly, this can prove incredibly problematic in cases where states have been ravaged by conflict; it may even be the state that is causing the displacement, as we have seen in Syria. The state may, in fact, be further abusing and exploiting its citizens once they have been displaced.

In 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than half of the Syrian population lived in displacement—that is really quite an astonishing fact—either across the border into another country or within their own country. As the civil war in Syria goes on and on, large swathes of the population continue to be displaced. In recent weeks, the Syrian Government forces in eastern Ghouta have been busing people to camps that are surrounded by other Government forces and then allegedly demanding that they surrender any form of ID.

Local journalists have reported that that is part of a broader Government plan to make drastic demographic changes, whereby property is handed over to pro-Government supporters. In such situations, the people who have been displaced must feel a real sense of hopelessness. Under international law, they remain the responsibility of the state that seems intent on persecuting them.

A further example of significant incidence of internal displacement can be seen in neighbouring Iraq, where it is estimated that there are around 2.2 million IDPs. Since the cessation of hostilities and violence in Mosul in 2017, many Christians from that area now wish to return, although they face significant difficulties in doing so.

I have not forgotten the most recent visit by a Christian pastor, whose church in Mosul had been burned down. He actually came over to Britain, at the investigation of the Open Doors charity, and he brought with him a scorched Bible, which he had asked to present to the Prime Minister, as one of the most poignant reminders of just how terrible the situation is for the persecuted minorities in Iraq. He explained how he and others had been displaced and how he had set up a new church, but, almost before he knew where he was, more than 300 families had come to seek refuge within the compound where the new church was situated.

The pastor explained how hard it is to return to Mosul and to try to start rebuilding one’s life all over again. We should not overlook the fact that the ISIL fighters have gone back to their original homes, so they are living in communities and making it very hard for the neighbours of Christians to welcome back their former Christian friends. The Christians are not made welcome again in the communities in which they once lived.

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Alistair Burt):

In this debate, the majority of colleagues have again discussed similar things, speaking warmly and knowledgeably as they always do, and asking far too many questions—as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on the Opposition Front Bench did—for me to answer conveniently in the seven or so minutes that I have. I also need to leave a moment for my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden to conclude. However, let me say one or two things in response.

The debate is opportune, with 2018 being the 20-year anniversary of the international guiding principles. I very much thank Christian Aid for their work on the subject, informing Members of Parliament and bringing forward the “Big Brekkie” breakfast briefing on IDPs, which my noble Friend Lord Bates was able to attend. I am grateful that colleagues have brought the subject forward as well. Christian Aid policy officials met my noble Friend last year and are in regular touch with my Department, but my officials are happy to consider those conversations further and to meet them again.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said and as others have mentioned, more than 65 million people globally have been driven from their homes by conflict or violence—that is equivalent to the entire population of the UK. It is staggering to look back over the past 20 years and see the change in the numbers and how many of them are related to conflict.

I was particularly struck, as I have been a number of times, by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and the way in which she framed her comments and spoke about individual experiences. The particular vulnerability of IDPs needs to be put on the record. They are in transit from one place to another, which is disorientating in itself, and the social organisation that they have come from has been replaced—the psychosocial distress of heads of families who can no longer provide for their families, instead becoming supplicant to aid agencies and the like. That is a sense of loss and potential humiliation of which none of us has experience, but it has a profound effect. To look at the situation in human terms, beyond the large figures, is important, and the hon. Lady did that particularly well.

IDPs suffer the removal from sources of income and livelihood, and from schooling, which we now try to replace not only for refugees to other countries but for the internally displaced. There is also the deprivation of access to facilities. All that is a vulnerability and, as colleagues have remarked, IDPs are not refugees. The whole point of the internally displaced is that they remain within their countries. Therefore, in answer to the question of who is primarily responsible for them, the state is, yet the state might be the perpetrator of the very distress from which those people are fleeing, which colleagues mentioned.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who understands this well, spoke about how, unless IDPs are dealt with effectively, and if we do not resolve the issues, we will have a recipe for future conflict. The emphasis on peace building, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) mentioned, is about looking forward and not about only our policy—peace building for the future means that, to deal with an issue, we need to look forward to ensure that we have taken out the reasons for problems to recur. That is most important, and that is where the difficulty has been in dealing with IDPs.

Let me try to put some of that a bit more in context. We are strongly committed to meeting the needs of IDPs. Our work is part of a wider strategy to shift our approach to protracted cases, to do more to protect people in such crises, to find ways to improve humanitarian access and to mitigate the effects of forced displacement. That means doing more to effectively meet the long-term needs of internally displaced people, and the communities that host them, through sustained access to education, health and jobs. Fundamentally, IDPs should not have to wait until a crisis is fully resolved before they begin to rebuild their lives.

The specific vulnerabilities of women and girls, which were mentioned by a number of colleagues, are very much on our radar screen. The empowerment of women and girls in emergencies was a priority for the UK at the World Humanitarian Summit, where we committed to put gender equality at the heart of humanitarian action, going beyond protection to make further commitments to ensure that women and girls have a voice, choice and control even when crisis hits. In many contexts the UK is working to prevent and address the effects of gender-based violence for displaced people, which includes a £25 million research initiative that is delivering innovative new programmes.

To answer the question of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston on data, we work closely with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. A new report is out soon. We cannot have too much data in such cases, but sometimes it is very difficult to get.

I will now move on to what colleagues are looking for us to do, because we are short of time. We are exploring new options with the UN, including the idea of launching a UN high-level panel on IDPs. That would help to galvanise political and operational action by bringing together a wide range of experts to make recommendations that cut across humanitarian, peace and security, development and human rights issues. It would not solve all issues that IDPs face, but it could set out a blueprint for reducing displacement and driving a more effective response. Ultimately, learning what has worked, addressing the root causes of crises and delivering a more comprehensive global approach are firmly in the interest of those forced to flee their homes, the countries that host them and the UK itself. On our own humanitarian strategy published last year, which contained information on IDPs, we look forward to ensuring that our actions are relevant to mitigating displacement and responding to it more effectively.

We could have done with a longer debate, but I want to give the last moments back to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. A number of issues have been raised, and more can be raised in questions and further debates, but I am grateful for this opportunity. IDPs are an important issue and should not be neglected. All of us who have come across them, and those who work with them, are always profoundly impacted by what we have seen and heard.