ANYWHERE in the world, if a family flees across a border to escape war or violence, it is eligible to receive food, temporary shelter, and clothing provided under United Nations auspices. Fifteen million refugees worldwide are eligible for the UN's help. But the 15 million to 21 million Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans who similarly flee violence - but stay within their national borders - often get little help.
After years of neglect, their problems are beginning to be taken seriously. Today the Monitor begins a four-part series exploring the world of these ``internally displaced'' persons.
Achong Deng and her seven children managed to travel several hundred miles on foot and by truck to escape the civil war in southern Sudan. But when they arrived in the capital Khartoum, no UN or other help was forthcoming.
Along with thousands of other southerners, the family set up a tiny stick frame hut atop a big, abandoned garbage dump and covered their shelter with cardboard and burlap. It is no protection against the cold nights and occasional heavy rains. But by working 13 hours a day hauling and selling water, the family now earns $1 a day. Still, ``we don't have enough to eat,'' Mrs. Deng says. Her family's ordeal repeats a pattern being played out around the world for myriad reasons.
The plight of the world's internal refugees is ``an international crisis ... numerically larger than [international] refugees, which is simply not being addressed,'' says Hiram Ruiz, of the United States Committee on Refugees, a private organization in Washington. ``The international community has repeatedly failed to tackle this as an international problem.''
Despite their lack of international visibility, internal refugees, such as Deng's family, ``have exactly the same needs as [international] refugees,'' says Abdulrahim Farah, United Nations undersecretary-general for special political questions.
Lance Clark, researcher for the Washington-based Refugee Policy Group, adds, ``I think we're beginning to see some recognition for the problem. ... Finally [internal refugees] are considered a legitimate topic.''
Such experts point to two recent developments as evidence of a growing awareness. First, the UN is planning on Oct. 1 to open a new office dedicated to highlighting the needs of internal refugees. Second, the 51-nation Organization of African Unity (OAU) passed a resolution during its summit meeting last month in which African heads of state for the first time called for international cooperation to help people stranded in war zones, many of whom are internal refugees.
The UN undertaking involves overcoming two major challenges. First, aid organizations face huge logistical obstacles to caring for those in remote areas. Second, for the UN to assist internal refugees, the organization's mode of operation has to be redefined. Where national sovereignty provided the legitimacy for UN actions, now human rights are gradually being considered as a legitimate basis for intervening inside a member country's territory.
Michael Priestley, who has directed relief operations in both Ethiopia and Sudan, will fill the new position at the UN. Initially his office will have funding of $500,000 - which will not go far. But the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) will request more money from its governing council, says Trevor Gordon-Somers, the UNDP's deputy assistant administrator for Africa.
Mr. Priestley and his staff will have to tread carefully. They do not have a mandate from the UN General Assembly to let them bypass sovereignty objections from nations wanting to hide their internal refugee problems. Efforts in the General Assembly to establish minimal standards of care for internal refugees have failed.
One of the main obstacles hindering assistance to internal refugees is war, says David Holdridge of Catholic Relief Services. More international pressure is needed to achieve cease-fires so that groups like his can ``move food and prevent widespread death,'' says Mr. Holdridge.
Some nations simply say: ``It's our problem; stay out.'' That was essentially Sudan's position in 1989. But in the face of international publicity and diplomatic pressure, government and rebel leaders allowed relief to come in to help civilians.
A program called Operation Lifeline Sudan, run by Jim Grant, administrator of the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), is widely credited with preventing a repetition of the 1988 famine in southern Sudan that cost some 250,000 lives.
This year's second big breakthrough was the OAU summit decision to help internal refugees. It marks one of the few occasions when African leaders have agreed in principle to let international organizations assist in resolving what typically is called an ``internal'' problem.
Mr. Grant describes the OAU resolution is part of ``an evolution of an emerging concept that civilians caught in the middle of conflict have the right to assistance.''
A UNICEF official in Africa says that, in some cases, the idea of national sovereignty can be ``the last refuge of dictators. Under the name of sovereignty, governments are allowed to kill en masse.''
Ultimately, caring for the world's internal refugees may require a ``new institution'' of some kind, says Issa Ben Yacine Diallo, a UN official. But whatever approach is used, he says, ``the political will can be found'' to do more to help the world's internal refugees.
Today - Some 15 million to 18 million Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans flee violence - but stay within national borders - often becoming ignored by governments and international agencies.
Friday - Millions of people uprooted in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation still live with factional fighting.
Tuesday - Guatemala's ``scorched earth'' policy in its battle with communist rebels and a harsh resettlement program have forced thousands into lives of poverty.
Wednesday - Right-wing rebels in Mozambique and Angola have fought their respective governments causing the dislocation of millions of people.