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UN refugee head says obligations to 'internal refugees' being recognized

[JURIST] Antonio Guterres [Wikipedia backgrounder], the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees [official profile] and former Portuguese prime minister, said Tuesday that international awareness of internal refugee issues was increasing and that countries had started to act to set and fulfil obligations towards them. There are around twenty to twenty-five million internally displaced people (IDPs) [IDP watchdog website] worldwide, yet only nine million are recognized as "refugees" because they have crossed the border into another countries. Although border-crossing refugees are covered by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees [text] which spells out the obligations of host countries and host agencies like the United Nations refugee agency [official UNHCR website], there is no legal equivalent outlining the rights of those who are displaced but remain within their own borders. There are general international guiding principles for the treatments of IDPs [GPID text], but Guterres said the UN was developing a new policy for this problem under which UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations would be given specific obligations to fulfil in the event of an IDP crisis. The UNHCR already handles some IDP situations on an ad hoc basis but the new policy would require the organization to manage camps, provide shelter and protect those in danger of persecution. The move reflects evolving international attitudes to sovereignty and mirrors recent UN General Assembly resolutions which emphasize that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. Guterres said that countries cannot refuse to act just because their refugees haven't crossed a frontier. Internally displaced persons from various regions in Africa and Asia have been in the news lately, and legal scholars and rights groups have pointed out that in the US the Hurricane Katrina evacuees qualify for IDP status and protections [JURIST report], despite the Bush administration's resistance to the suggestion. Reuters has more.

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