The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 3, 2003
February 3, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 20


A 'Forgotten Population'

Internally displaced persons are focus of new academic center at SAIS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The term political refugee has long been part of the international vocabulary. Not so widely recognized, however, is the phrase internally displaced person. Francis M. Deng is on a mission to change that reality.

Deng, a research professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, is the inaugural director of SAIS's new Center for Displacement Studies, the first academic institute dedicated to addressing issues related to internal displacement.

Francis M. Deng, a research professor, heads SAIS' new Center for Displacement Studies, the first academic institute dedicated to addressing issues related to inernal displacement.

Since the end of the Cold War, tens of millions of people have been forced from their homes by armed conflict, internal strife, communal violence and violations of human rights yet remain within the borders of their home nations. There are currently an estimated 25 million internally displaced persons in about 50 countries and on all the world's continents.

Unlike refugees who cross national borders and benefit from an established system of international humanitarian support, the internally displaced have no such safety net and often receive little or no support from their governments or from outsiders, Deng says, in essence making them a "forgotten population." Many internally displaced are virtually trapped, he says, because they either live in central regions of their countries, far from friendly borders, or would have to travel through war zones to reach some modicum of safety.

Deng, who has dedicated the past 10 years of his life to the issue of internal displacement, says the situation has become one of the more pressing humanitarian problems confronting the international community today.

"We are talking about people often deprived of shelter, drinkable water, schooling. All their community resources have been lost. Their property, farms and livestock have all been destroyed," he says. "These people are in desperate need of help, and many of them presently live in danger zones where armed conflicts are taking place around them, their utter lives in jeopardy."

Although the issue predates the Cold War, the extent of the internal displacement problem, Deng says, was not fully known until after the Cold War ended and nations began to open their doors, revealing long-hidden humanitarian issues. The term internally displaced persons (often shortened to IDPs) originates from a 1992 report by then United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. That same year, Boutros-Ghali, responding to a request of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, appointed Deng as his representative on internally displaced persons, a title he still holds.

A former minister of state for his native Sudan, Deng became acquainted with Boutros-Ghali during the former secretary-general's days as Egypt's deputy prime minister for foreign affairs. Deng says he was honored by the appointment but did not immediately accept the position because he wanted "more details." His old friend would not take maybe for an answer, however.

"He told me, 'Francis, I know you very well. I know how concerned you are with these global problems, and this particular one affects our Africa the most, your own southern part of the Sudan [being] the worst hit. I can't see how you can say no.' " Deng says. "Well, that was all I needed to hear."

Following his 1992 U.N. appointment, Deng co-founded the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement, now the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement.

The Brookings-SAIS program was created to promote greater awareness and a more effective national, regional and international response capacity to the global problem. Likewise, the new Center for Displacement Studies, which falls under the auspices of SAIS's Foreign Policy Institute, also will promote an effective response to the issue while monitoring displacement worldwide. To accomplish its mission, the center will conduct a variety of outreach efforts including seminars, conferences, lectures series and publications. In addition, the center will host visiting scholars and develop academic courses at SAIS.

The center, still in the process of formation, will be housed in the university's Bernstein-Offit Building, which sits across Massachusetts Avenue from SAIS's Nitze Building.

Deng says the scholarly world needs to better understand the problem of internal displacement, and that is where the center comes in to play.

"Here, we will primarily be conducting policy analysis," he says. "We plan to invite fellow academics, students, nongovernment and government officials to study this issue in depth and come up with some workable solutions."

The largest hurdle to overcome in dealing with internal displacement is that nations where it takes place often hide behind their sovereignty, refusing assistance or even acknowledging the existence of the problem, Deng says. In the past, governments have shied from the sensitive issue, but Deng says they no longer can afford to do so.

"Some countries are in denial," he says. "They don't want to invite international involvement on a humanitarian basis and have no sympathy for their displaced populations. Other governments recognize the issue and want to do something but simply don't have the capacity to deal with it and need international cooperation."

Born in Sudan, Deng received his master of laws and a J.S.D degree from Yale University Law School. During his professional career he has held many positions, most notably as human rights officer in the United Nations Secretariat; Sudanese ambassador to the United States, Scandinavia and Canada; and guest scholar and senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 1989, he joined the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow to help establish the African Studies Program. From 2001 to 2002, he was a distinguished professor of political science at City University of New York's Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He joined SAIS in May 2002.

To date, Deng says he has been to 25 countries on missions related to internal displacement, traveling to nations such as Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Georgia and Columbia. On these missions he visits with both government officials and the internally displaced populations. He says the IDPs with whom he meets often say they no longer have any rights and are helplessly waiting for someone to do something.

By bringing a new level of visibility to the issue, Deng says, the center hopes to find this "someone."

"Much of the world has not been properly introduced to this relatively new problem as of yet," he says. "Hopefully, through our efforts, they will."