Calvin Lee
Aug 11, 2018 · 7 min read

Installment 12 of: ‘The Making of the Modern Internment Regime’

The Kurdish refugee children who live in a nearby camp established as a part of Operation Provide Comfort (Kettenhofen, 1991).

The collapse of the Soviet bloc at end of the Cold War triggered large-scale population displacements. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, ethnic tension and political upheaval began to take place in Warsaw Pact nations and other satellites (Ambroso, 2011 p.3). Political reorderings took place in many other parts of the world as well. Many innocent people became the victims of persecution within the borders of their own nations. These internally displaced persons, or IDPs, eventually became the primary concern of the UNHCR during the Yugoslav Wars (1991) and the Kurdish refugee crisis that followed in the wake of the first Gulf War.. These events raised challenges to the promotion of “preventive protection” policies of the UNHCR, and heightened the need to take appropriate measures.

Child in Yugoslav war, waiting to be evacuated to safety by the UN (Denton, 1991).

1989 (2 December). U.S.President Bush and Soviet Premier Gorbachev announce end of the cold war at the Malta Summit.

1991 (1 March). Outbreak of the Iraq Uprising and the Kurdish mass displacement (First Gulf War).

1991 (5 April). The United Nations Security Council passes Resolution 688 and endorses Operation Provide Comfort.

1991 (25 June). Seccession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia. Outbreak of the Yugoslavian war.

The Former Yugoslavia and the Internally Displaced

The former Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic state in which eight different peoples and various religions were unified under a common common communist regime. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Yugoslavian communist regime followed. Intra-ethnic conflict began and Yugoslavia broke up into ten different states. Large proportions of the population were internally displaced as ethnic minorities in the newly-divided regions were left vulnerable to the persecution of major ethnic groups. Yugoslavia’s war of dissolution resulted in 2 million internally-displaced persons and 2.4 million refugees (Colic-Peisker, 2003).

Figure 1 The population of the IDPs and Refugees from 1989 to 2007 (IDMC, 2009).

In response to the trend of decreasing numbers of refugees (UNHCR and UNRWA beneficiaries) and increasing numbers of internally displaced persons in the post Cold-War era, the UNHCR decided to publish the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998.

A “[refugee] is a person who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of [persecution], is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it…” (UNHCR, 1951)*

Because IDPs were not protected by the UNHCR under the refugee convention, which only applied to those who crossed borders and sought asylum in other states (1951 UNHCR convention), the UNHCR sought to “present a document which clearly outlined IDP guarantees” (UNHCR, 1998 p.557). The UNHCR also extended its mandate under the “good offices” jurisdiction to provide aid to IDPs and others in conflict zones, creating the position of Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons in the process (Deng, 1995 p.45–48).

The Kurdish refugee crisis and Turkey’s Violation of Non-Refoulement Policy

During the Cold War period, many states accepted refugees from other states and respected the 1951 convention’s principle of non-refoulement, which meant that asylum seekers could not be cast back into the danger they had fled before their cases could be evaluated by the host country. This was, in part, driven by ideological imperatives to distinguish Liberal Democracies from the Soviet Block. (Mertus, 1998). However, as the Cold War collapsed, granting asylum to the refugees stopped being an imperative. For instance, when the 1991 uprising in Iraq displaced 400,000 Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border, the Turkish Republican Guard threatened and opened fire on those who tried to flee across the border (1997 UNHCR report).

Kurdish refugees on Turkish border (Imperial War Museum, n.d.)

In doing so, Turkey violated the non-refoulement principles, which inhibit sovereign states from repatriating refugees to their country of origin when there exists a high risk of persecution (1951 UNHCR convention). However, instead of sanctioning Turkey, the UNHCR sent the Kurdish refugees back to Iraq (Loescher, 2001 p20). With the help of UN Security Council, UNHCR and allied military forces carried out “Operation Provide Comfort” and created a human “holding zone” in the Northern Iraq. Its purpose was to protect and contain the Kurdish refugee population (Mertus, 1998 p.80).

UNHCR and Repatriation and Containment Strategies

From the late 1980’s to the early 2000’s, the UNHCR actively pushed for the repatriation of refugees, perceiving extended exposure to refugee conditions to be harmful to the displaced (Loescher, 2001 p.15). The UNHCR’s repatriation policies became more flexible, for example, as it began to forcibly return refugees back to their countries of origin if there was what the agency considered ‘appreciable’ improvement in the conflict region (Barnett, 2001).

Moreover, in the 1992 report, the UNHCR set the concept of ‘preventive protection’ — “the establishment or undertaking of specific activities inside the country of origin so that people no longer feel compelled to cross borders in search of protection” (UNHCR, 1992 p.573). As in Kurd’s case, UNHCR used this concept to validate the idea of safe havens, signaling the shift in UNHCR’s primary goal from providing durable protection by granting the displaced who crossed borders the status of refugee to preventing refugees from seeking asylum outside their countries by providing humanitarian assistance in the ‘safe area’ UNHCR provides (Lee, 2010 p.11). Accordingly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, worked to develop a new strategy of ‘returnee aid and development,’ which aimed at providing short-term assistance to facilitate reintegration (UNHCR, 1992).

Figure 2: Changes in Total Humanitarian Assistance in USD. Green (1990), orange, and red (2008) are data points from the United States. Blue dots represent 22 remaining donors in 2008. (Global Humanitarian Assistance programme of Development Initiatives)

Increased UNHCR funding from donations correlated with a shift toward preventive protection in the post-Cold War era. (Lee, 2010 p.12). As can be seen in Figure 2 (Randel and German, 2002), the United States, in particular, increased its humanitarian spending to more than 4 billion dollars in 2008, compared to 500 million dollars in 1990.

Kofi Annan at the UN Millennium Summit. Here is the full script of his speech.

“Too often, when donor governments decide which of your activities to fund, …… you have become part of a ‘containment strategy,’ by which this world’s more fortunate and powerful countries seek to keep the problems of the poorer at arm’s length” (Annan, 2000).”**

This change in funding patterns coincided with shifts in the geopolitical interests of sovereign states. Between 1989 and 1998, the allocation of UNHCR funding toward “donor domestic and historical priorities” constantly increased. These earmarked funds decreased the flexibility of the UNHCR’s spending, posing constraints on the UNHCR’s autonomy (Randel and German 2002 p.22). These would impel the UNHCR to attempt to shelter and protect threatened populations in place, before they ever crossed a border.

Conclusion: Shift Towards IDPs and Preventive Protection

Family in the Tuzla refugee camp in former Yugoslavia (Clement, n.d.)

The massive geopolitical shifts at the end of the Cold War had a large impact on the UNHCR’s efforts to cope with refugee problems. In order to accede to the interests of western powers, the Cold War policies of protection and asylum were replaced by an ‘IDP regime’ that used humanitarian assistance as a “containment mechanism” to stem the flow of the refugees into western states (Lee, 2010 p.14).

Block Quote Sources:

  • article 1 of UNHCR convention, 07/28/1951;**Kofi Annan, in UN Millennium Summit, 10/02/2000

Picture Sources:

Clement, 1991–1995 Yugoslav War, photograph, accessed June 2013, <>. CC BY 2.0

Denton, December 1991, Croatian War 1991 child refugee, photograph, <>. CC BY 2.O

Kurdish children play on a Soviet-built ZPU-4 in 1991, by Kettenhofen, defense imagery, Public Domain.

Operation haven — royal marines and the humanitarian relief effort for Kurdish refugees on the Iraq-Turkish border 1991, by unknown, Imperial War Museum, Public Domain.


Ambroso, Guido. (2011) The end of history? Conflict, displacement and durable solutions in the post-cold war era. UNHCR.

Barnett, Michael. (2001) Humanitarianism with a Sovereign Face: UNHCR in the Global Undertow. International Migration Review.

BBC News Archive. (2001) Renewed clashes near Kosovo border retrieved 23 April 2015

Colic-Peisker, Val (2003) Bosnian refugees in Australia: identity, community and labour market integration. UNHCR Working paper.

Deng, M. Francis. (1995) Dealing with the Displaced: A Challenge to the International Community. Global Governance.

Evera, Van, Stephen. (1990/1991) Primed for Peace: Europe after the Cold War. International Security.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global IDP Estimates 1990–2017

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2010

Kofi Annan. (2000) Secretary-General Addresses Executive Committee of UNHCR. UNHCR Press Release, Published 3 October.

Lee, Christopher. (2010) Humanitarian assistance as containment: New codes for a new order. Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper.

Loescher, Gil. (2001) The Post-Cold War Era and the UNHCR Under Sadako Ogata. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online.

Mertus, Julie. (1998) The State and the Post-Cold War Refugee Regime: New Models, New Questions. Ohio: Michigan Journal of International Law.

Randel, Judith and German, Tony. (2002) The New Humanitarianism: a review of trends in global humanitarian action, Chapter 2 Trends in the financing of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian Policy Group Report.

UN Archives. 1951 Refugee Convention.1951.

UNHCR. (1992) Bridging the Gap Between Returnee Aid and Development: A Challenge for the International Community. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR. (1995) supra note 14.

UNHCR (1997) Refworld; Chronology for Sunnis in Iraq retrieved 14 August 2013.

UNHCR. (1998) Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

UNHCR archive (2000) Interview with Sadako Ogata. 29 November 2000.

UN Security Council (1991) UN Security Council Resolution 688. 5 April 1991.

The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.

Thanks to Daniel Bertrand Monk

Calvin Lee

Written by

Colgate University ’21 Benton Scholar

The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.

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