(June 28, 2021) According to the recently published United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2020, the total number of people forcibly displaced worldwide grew to 82.4 million in 2020, more than twice the number of people who were forcibly displaced a decade ago. The number of displaced people includes internally displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers, and those displaced abroad without status. This increasing trend in displaced people contrasts with an overall decrease in the number of international migrants in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mandate of UNHCR – Refugees and Stateless Persons
As a subsidiary organ of the United Nations (UN), UNHCR is a multilateral, intergovernmental institution mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide international protection and seek permanent solutions for the problems of refugees. UNHCR’s mandate is also embedded in international treaty law, as the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees obligate state parties to cooperate with UNHCR. UNHCR is also tasked with protecting stateless persons, as mandated by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, the stateless persons conventions are not widely ratified, and UNHCR launched a campaign in 2014 to promote accession to these treaties.
International Law and Internally Displaced Persons
The 2020 global forced displacement report also covers a group of displaced persons outside the international treaty framework—namely, internally displaced persons (IDPs). As noted in the report, internally displaced persons comprise the overall majority of displaced persons—of the 11.2 million people forced to flee in 2020, 9.8 million were displaced within their own country. To address this legal gap, the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the UN Human Rights Council) in 2004 developed the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Reflecting international human rights law and international humanitarian law, these principles seek to provide guidance to states and other authorities who are faced with the phenomenon of internal displacement.
Unlike providing international protection for persons who are forcibly displaced outside their own country, the Guiding Principles underline the fact that it is not the international community but rather national authorities that “have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction.” (Guiding Principles art. 3(1).) However, as emphasized in Protecting Internally Displaced Persons—a manual for lawmakers and policy makers produced in 2008 by Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Walter Kälin and experts from leading UN and other international agencies and organizations, regional human rights bodies, and academic institutions—this does not mean that international law does not apply to IDPs; rather, international human rights law requires that all IDPs enjoy the rights to move freely, choose their residence, and leave any country. Moreover, these rights are not subject to any restrictions except those that are provided by law; necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others; and consistent with other recognized human rights. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights art 12.)
Additionally, under international humanitarian law, the involuntary transfer of civilians in situations of armed conflict is prohibited except when justified by considerations of the civilians’ own security or imperative military reasons, and those civilians must be permitted to return home as soon as hostilities in the area have ceased (see, e.g., Fourth Geneva Convention art. 49). However, as the global forced displacement report notes, millions of IDPs remain in protracted displacement, and only 3.2 million IDPs were able to return to their place of residence in 2020, compared to 5.3 million in 2019.