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Statement about Researching IDPs and the UNHCR

By Terry Trowbridge

Its prettee terribul what we dew 2 each othr n what we try to protect we mostlee loos

- bill bissett, scars on th seahors, p. 128 [sic]

A massive number of Rwandan refugees at the Kitali refugee camp. They are part of the1.2 million refugees who fled after civil war erupted in their country.
Photo: Rwandan Refugees at Kitali Refugee Camp / TSGT Val Kempis via WikiCommons

The Untired Nations mobilizes people and resources to protect IDPs – Internally Displaced People – who have been forced to flee from their homes but remain in their own country. To do this, they organize “clusters” of international NGOs, state agencies, and local sectarian or secular organizations. What is interesting about all of the documents published on UN websites and in their archives, is that none of that literature discusses what Internally Displaced People try to protect.

Experience and research both show that IDP encampments require resources which need to be renewed daily. These resources include food, fuel, water, clothes, waste disposal, medicine. They disappear rapidly. They must be replenished from the surrounding environment.

There is scant discussion in UNHCR documents or independent research about more permanent, reusable items like religious icons or jewelry (despite faith-based organizations at ground-level, nobody tracks examples like yarmulke, rosary beads, copies of the Qu’ran, household Buddha, equipment for sacrifices). Neither do they track idiosyncratic items like a child’s toy stuffed animal (such as teddy bears, or various dolls). They do not mention business ledgers, household banking documents, generational family cookbooks, diplomas, team jerseys, toolboxes, or any other items. For reasons of fire, flood, and bloodshed, UNHCR cluster groups must plan for displaced people who flee with nothing except shirt and shoes. Nevertheless, families are displaced from different real-life scenarios. Omitting research about these errata does not help UNHCR clusters to plan or prepare.

For example, a team jersey might be a way for a displaced person to guarantee they make friends with fans of a sport or citizens of a particular team’s city. A toolbox can make a person indispensable to everyday life in the aftermath of emergencies; with the caveat that they are also at risk of becoming a target of theft. The UNHCR foregrounds a claim that IDPs are themselves human resources with the capacity to fulfill labour needs while they wait for permanent housing solutions. In order to network, and mobilize their own skills, IDPs must have opinions about what they want to salvage, carry, and maintain during displacement.

As citizens of the world, we can imagine that many people with skills to repair smartphones, plumbing, car engines, boats, farm equipment, would gladly accept a donation of a toolbox with used but acceptable tools. IDPs might appreciate a charity that pays $20 in Canadian or Australian funds to a university, in order to reissue a lost degree (and maybe the charity can safely store it). Animal toys and family heirlooms both benefit from sewing kits and currently impossible, somewhat unimaginable, services like free drycleaning, or fabric preservation services.

Palestine refugees (British Mandate of Palestine - 1948). "Making their way from Galilee in October-November 1948"
Photo: Palestinian refugees (1948) / Fred Csasznik via WikiCommons

For business solutions like ledgers, tax documents, and shipping manifests, northern countries are misguided by their own success with off-site cloud computing. Off-site cloud computing offers no solutions, being an unreliable business model encumbered by subscription services which IDPs cannot be expected to pay. The cloud itself might, maybe, be of some use, one day; but the subscription business model is hopelessly extinct already: worthless in a world of prairie fires, river floods, and shifting addresses with intermittent personal income or organizational capacity. Subscriptions are gone like the dodo, frozen in the glacier-like museum mentality of English-speaking commerce in suburbs and server farms that overlook forest fires in California and Virginia. Subscriptions are the ironic version of asset management, wherein stability is downloaded as a problem for the subscriber to manage, and not the service that depends on the subscription. In contrast, IDPs are the actual reality that cloud computing was born into.

However, there might be a future for cloud computing if, and only if, the technology can be interfaced with UNHCR clusters, and only if there are insurance models that can deliver the storage; and not just storage, but also the accessibility to IDPs. Perhaps, now that the Colorado River has gone dry, the Californian owners of subscription services will discover they are Colorado River downstream riverbed fossils themselves, and hand their technologies over to the experienced IDPs whose current experiences will inform all future business models.

The UNHCR clusters must find out what IDPs throughout the world want to protect, and not least of all, because the owners of mobile capital and investment managers have nowhere to go. Their own children are likely to be IDPs, their grandchildren will have to be IDPs. Given their investment capital and intermarriage among economic elite families, those children and grandchildren will probably be displaced while under the illusion that they relocate out of choice. The reality already is that they will be displaced like everyone else, by the under-researched choices of their parents. The difference will be what they wish to take along to their new location, and their choices of locations. Given how airport tarmacs melt in summer temperatures throughout the Midwest North American and Mediterranean European latitudes, the capacity to be displaced in a private jet has already been limited to fewer airports in this decade than the last. Even the wealthy of the world will have to reconsider the baggage they take along.

In conclusion: today’s UNHCR cluster approach needs to include research about what IDPs choose to take along when they flee disasters. There is nothing but sarcastic irony awaiting a displaced person, in her own country, who goes to the trouble of saving a toolbox, a goat, and a Nairobi City Stars t-shirt, only to be forced into a system designed for people who carry nothing, have nothing left to store or protect, and therefore the items are lost – or worse, surrendered to the disaster relief authorities and their procedures. What do internally displaced people want to save, want to preserve, and want to carry?


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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