There were estimated to be over 20 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 1999, a number that surpasses global estimates of refugees. Displacement exposes IDPs to new hazards and accrued vulnerability. These dynamics result in greater risk for the development of illness and death. Often, access of IDPs to health care and humanitarian assistance is excluded deliberately by conflicting parties. Furthermore, the arrival of IDPs into another community or region strains local health systems, and the host population ends up sharing the sufferings of the internally displaced. Health outcomes are dismaying.
From a health perspective, the best option is to avoid human displacement. WHO contributes to the prevention of displacement by working for sustainable development. Placing health high on the political agenda helps maintain stability, and thereby, reduce the likelihood for displacement.
Primary responsibility for assisting IDPs, irrespective of the cause, rests with the national government. However, where the government is unwilling or unable to provide the necessary aid, the international humanitarian community must step in, with WHO playing a major role in the health sector.
There is consensus among the partners of the World Health Organization (WHO) that, in emergencies, the WHO must: 1) take the lead in rapid health assessment, epidemiological and nutritional surveillance, epidemic preparedness, essential drugs management, control of communicable diseases, and physical and psychosocial rehabilitation; and 2) provide guidelines and advice on nutritional requirements and rehabilitation, immunisation, medical relief items, and reproductive health.
If the vital health needs of IDPs—security, food, water, shelter, sanitation and household items—are not satisfied, the provision of health services alone cannot save lives. Community participation is essential, and community participation implies bolstering the assets and capacities of the beneficiaries.
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