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Internal Displacement: A Global Environmental Health Challenge

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By Fred O’Brien

Honorary Vice President IFEH


Displacement, in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is “arguably the most significant humanitarian challenge that we face”. In 2007, the total number of conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide increased by 3.7 million from the previous year to a staggering total of 26 million, the highest number ever recorded.  These people were seeking shelter after being forced from their homes. Some 9.3 million live in 10 countries whose governments are indifferent or hostile to their protection needs. The fact that a great many of them have been denied physical security and integrity, the basic necessities of life, economic, social and cultural needs and live under environmental conditions inimical to human health, cries out for redress.

The findings outlined above are to be found in the report: Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2007, released in April 2008 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The full report (98 pages) can be accessed at:


A brief overview of the global findings in the report and of the IDP numbers in the European Region has been compiled for this article in the following two tables. Note that numbers for Georgia, the Russian Republic and Turkey have been interpolated. Figures for the other constituent regions of the IFEH body can readily be compiled from the iDMC document.



Denial of Environmental Health Conditions Supportive of Life is A Crime Against Humanity

Recent developments in the UN family of organisations has opened the door for NGOs to become committed champions and willing collaborators with UN agencies and national Governments in redressing wrongs that imperil peoples’ safety. The International Federation of Environmental Health (IFEH) is strategically placed to marshal its resources and exert an important responsibility-to-protect influence in areas of the world where environmental health rights are trampled upon. It is important to note that a ‘responsibility to protect’ approach has been enshrined in the objectives and policies of the International Federation of Environmental Health from its earliest days (cf. Policy 1/ Alma-Ata IV; and Policy 8, bullit 2).  IFEH Policy Statements can be accessed at – go to Activities & Projects.


In September 2005, Heads of State and Governments from 170 countries at the UN World Summit gave unanimous approval for the adoption of “A Responsibility to Protect” doctrine which required UN intervention for crimes against humanity. Environmental health matters figured prominently in the discussions. At the world summit all states acknowledged not only their obligation to protect their own people, but more crucially, that the international community has a duty to step in on behalf of civilians at risk of crimes against humanity, whenever a government is either directly responsible for these crimes or incapable of stopping them.


In March, 2006, the UN General Assembly (GA) established the new Human Rights Council as a subsidiary body of the GA to replace the Commission on Human Rights. A procedure to lodge complaints has been agreed and the submission of reports on environmental health circumstances affecting displacement victims, and falling within the complaints procedure criteria may be submitted to:

Human Rights Council and Treaties Division

Complaint Procedure


1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland


The holding of persons accountable for environmental health crimes against humanity under international law are governed by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.


Role of the IFEH

The International Federation of Environmental Health is a non-governmental organization of national organizations  representing some 50,000 environmental health professionals in 37 member countries world-wide. Since its incorporation in 1986 it has actively promoted care for the environment in the interest of human health through a variety of means, including, among other things, the holding of ten world congresses and publication of the proceedings; the adoption, publication and dissemination of global position papers,  the establishment of a comprehensive webpage – , and the wide circulation of its publication Environment and Health International.

The Federation, in addition, is active in the field through its members, and benefits from the accumulated knowledge, experience and expertise of Environmental Health Professionals working around the world, including in areas of great deprivation and in disaster struck communities. Through Environmental Health in Disasters & Emergencies (EHiDE) it is working to make available environmental health personnel to international aid agencies and to enhance environmental health disaster preparedness worldwide.

The Federation promotes an holistic approach to environmental sustainability and encourages inter-sectoral collaboration, multidisciplinary and community-participative activities, and the utilization of meaningful sustainability indicators to inform good environmental health management practices at local, regional and international levels.


IFEH has an important responsibility and significant opportunity to promote improved environmental health services to internally displaced persons worldwide. Through its regional groups (Africa, The Americas, Europe (EFEH), Asia & Pacific, and the Middle East) it can more effectively address this most significant humanitarian challenge on both a regional and global front.


Internal Displacement

Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2007


Conflict-related IDPs Dec 2007



26 million


Countries affected



At least 52


Most affected continent



Africa – 12.7 million in 19 countries


Countries where most IDPs were exposed

to serious threats to security and integrity




10 countries


Countries where most IDPs faced obstacles

to access the basic necessities of life




10 countries


Countries with govs or occupation forces

involved in deliberately displacing people



21 countries


IDPs without any significant humanitarian

assistance from their governments



11.3  in at least 13 countries


IDPs faced with governments indifferent

or hostile to their protection needs



9.3 million in at least 10 countries

Source: Norwegian Refugee Council Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre


Internal Displacement in Europe in 2007



Conflict Related IDPs in Europe



Total: 2,691,390












Bosnia and Herzegovina

























Russian Federation2














  1. 222,000-247,000  page 91   From Norwegian Refugee Council IDMC 2008 Report:
  2. 19,000-159,000     page 93   Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends & Development 2007
  3. 950,000-1,200,000page 94

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