The world's lost people: neither refugees nor citizens

In a camp for displaced persons in northern Sri Lanka, Kandhaya Kaliyankumar's voice softens as he describes the tragedy that destroyed his home and killed his brother. He knows that he was lucky to escape the devastation along with his wife and four children. He is tired of living on sparse handouts from the government, international agencies, and private charities. He wants nothing more than to receive a small plot of land to cultivate rice and also to raise his children away from the alcohol, drugs, and disease that pervade the densely packed camp housing 4,000 people.

Mr. Kaliyankumar is one of the world's forgotten people. His tragedy is not the result of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka. Instead, it stems from the civil strife between the largely Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that has killed some 65,000 people and left more than 300,000 homeless over two decades. Despite a cease-fire signed in 2002, the conflict is worsening. New attacks and the assassination of the country's foreign minister have dashed hopes that cooperation on tsunami relief would bring lasting peace. And while generous assistance floods into Sri Lanka to assist the tsunami victims and return them to their places of origin, the victims of Sri Lanka's man-made tragedy have languished for years in government welfare centers that are little more than urban slums.

The homeless in Sri Lanka are part of a global phenomenon affecting 25 million people in about 50 countries. Civilians - not soldiers - are now overwhelmingly the victims of conflict. There are at least 1 million internally displaced persons in Sudan, Colombia, Congo, Uganda, Iraq, Algeria, and Turkey, and the numbers are growing every day. Because internally displaced persons - IDPs in humanitarian lingo - don't cross international borders, they don't automatically receive the rights, protection, and assistance that come to refugees. They have no patron among international agencies or donors, and no formal system of legal rights.

Often, governments responsible for displacement may restrict international donors and foreign relief agencies anxious to help, especially during conflict, when aid to the displaced in rebel territories is considered aid to the enemy.

Who are the internally displaced? They are 6 million Sudanese driven from their homes in the south and in Darfur by brutal civil war. They are 3 million Colombians who have suffered from a half-century of civil strife. They are women and children of northern Uganda, crowded into squalid and ill- protected camps to prevent murder, kidnapping, and forced recruitment by the Lord's Resistance Army. They are Congolese civilians caught in the crossfire of ethnic militias, foreign troops, and insurgency groups. Most recently, they are hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans driven from their shacks outside Harare by Robert Mugabe's latest atrocity.

I've visited displaced persons huddled in desolate camps in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka, in bombed-out buildings and train stations in Angola, and in desperate shantytowns on the outskirts of major cities in Sudan. IDP death rates can be 60 times those of nonaffected populations.

Beyond the moral and humanitarian imperatives, mass internal displacement brings chaos that may serve as breeding grounds for terrorism; trafficking in drugs, arms, and persons; pandemic diseases; and other threats to international order. The failure to rapidly return IDPs to their homes can doom peace agreements and reconstruction.

Various agencies are doing outstanding work on behalf of IDPs, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, World Food Program, International Organization for Migration, Red Cross, US Agency for International Development, State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and private relief and development organizations. They deserve our greater financial support and encouragement. We must build a permanent constituency to assist and defend the rights of IDPs, and to solve the root causes of the conflicts that create the displacement in the first place.

Kaliyankumar and his family have been waiting in the squalor of a government welfare center in Sri Lanka for eight years. The world has opened its hearts and its pocketbooks to the global victims of the tsunami. We should be no less generous to the victims of man-made disasters.

Donald Steinberg is the vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group and former US ambassador to Angola.

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