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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

Key Military Police Tasks in Refugee/Internally
Displaced Persons Operations: Providing Security
and Preventing Human Suffering

MAJ Margie Brown, U.S. Army


Countries are increasingly dealing with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in sizeable numbers. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported almost 10 million refugees in 2010 and 14.7 million IDPs. Due to natural disasters, political strife, and war, people around the world become internally and outwardly displaced. Between March-June 1999, the armed conflict in Kosovo created over 800,000 refugees that flowed primarily into Albania and the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. This conflict also created 206,500 IDPs in Serbia and 21,000 IDPs in Kosovo and Montenegro, which were ethnic Serbs originating from Kosovo.

Kosovo is just one example of how this dilemma is a growing concern on every continent. Refugees and displaced persons are often separated from family, friends, and personal property, with no certainty of return.

Photo showing a refugee camp

Figure 13-1. Refugee camp

Limited Doctrine

Refugees and IDPs present a complex problem scenario for the military. What makes this more challenging is the limited military doctrine on refugee and IDP operations. Field Manual (FM) 3-19.40, Military Police Internment/Resettlement, provides the legal definition of refugees and IDPs in accordance with the UNHCR. It also discusses the principal coordinating federal agency, which is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and other supporting civilian organizations. However, FM 3-19.40 does not provide operational measures for commanders to execute IDP operations.

Certain tasks are vital to refugee camps, and these tasks will support the UNHCR and limit internal conflict and prevent human suffering. There are security issues within these camps of which the military should be aware when executing refugee operations. The United Nations' guiding principles on internal displacement are based on two bodies of international law that provide useful guidance on displacement-specific aspects. Military police and other military occupation forces may face the challenge of working with displaced persons.

Criminal Activity

Displaced people are sometimes separated from family and friends and are joined with strangers, which creates disorientation. Refugee camps routinely suffer from overcrowding, lack of sustainable employment, and poor sanitary conditions, which all combine to cause additional security problems. Crime categories range from common to serious, with sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) a very common occurrence. The most serious crimes and abuses faced by displaced men, women, and children are murder, serious injury, rape, arson, kidnapping, and disappearances.

SGBV can be characterized as sexual violence, including sexual exploitation or abuse; forced prostitution; domestic violence; trafficking; and forced or early marriage. There are harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilations, honor killings, widow inheritance, and more. Female genital mutilation is practiced in 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, northern Iraq, Malaysia, and Indonesia. New evidence shows that genital mutilation is also occurring in other Middle Eastern countries, including Yemen, Iran, Syria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and parts of South Asia. The practice also can be found in Europe, the United States, Australia, and other countries in the West where immigrants bring their cultural traditions with them.

Theft of personal belongings is also a concern as is the routine use of violence during the commission of this crime. People tend to use violence more easily against those who have no family ties. Competition over limited resources such as food, water, and fuel may give rise to people resorting to violence as a means of survival.

Providing Security

For these reasons, effective law and order are imperative and become the primary task for military policing. Law and order for refugees require a police organization that is efficient and effective and that upholds human rights and the rule of law. Nongovernmental or international officials cannot effectively conduct assistance without security enforcement.

Military police must prioritize security inside camps for aid workers and refugees and ensure that those who have suffered violence are not further victimized. Combatants must be immediately disarmed and disbanded within the camp, and the area of operation must be considered a weapons-free zone except for the military. Camps should be situated away from border areas to maintain positive control of the camps by denying penetration or enemy access. Location considerations should include logistical routes, water supply, availability of wood fuel, waste disposal, and proximity to local support facilities.

Camp Security

A camp is similar to a community as it applies to security: the camp requires proactive policing and the investigation of crimes. This approach will ultimately help to reduce instances of crime and violence, restore humanitarian confidence, and allow for the start of desperately needed humanitarian programs.

Moreover, those in charge of the camps must make a diligent effort to register and issue identification cards to dislocated persons for accurate accountability. This measure will help to determine the size of the police force needed and will assist with logistical requirements. If identification cards are not available, military units can use enemy prisoner of war capture tags (Department of Defense Form 2745) to obtain data such as gender, age, special health considerations, and family members.

A camp must be divided into groups as much as possible. Groups can be made up of single parents, the elderly without family, and orphans under the age of 16, etc. Every consideration should be taken to group single females away from single males without separating families.

Security Considerations for Females

Female patrols are important to maintain female privacy and respect. Creating privacy in camps is a positive action, but it must be balanced with security. Camp security should include entry points and traffic control points for vehicles and pedestrians to prevent infiltrators who want to exploit women and children. Units should also train females within the host nation security force to assist with gender-based crimes. Some patrols can be of a mixed gender to efficiently meet the needs of the people.

If available, it is beneficial to coordinate with engineers to provide structural capability and assist with developing road networks to provide freedom of movement for continuous patrolling, since this will generate a deterrent effect. Lighting also supports security efforts in dead space and along roads during periods of limited visibility. Lighting should be placed both internally to the camp and externally around the perimeter to increase effective surveillance.

Camps are inclined to have large numbers of displaced persons, which may require a large police force. However, if the security force is not very large, the key is to discourage criminal activity through active patrols and investigations.

Prosecuting Crimes

Steps should be taken to establish prosecutorial awareness using an information awareness campaign. Host governments may be unable or unwilling to provide law and order and the administration of justice in the camps. Therefore, the administration of justice within an IDP camp would be better carried out according to the judicial and penal system of the host country. In refugee camps, some host countries effectively relinquish control of these matters to local civil authority.

The legal staff should work with the host nation to bring legal process to the camps on a routine basis. If obtaining an in-camp legal process proves difficult, another option could be to establish a bus system to transport dislocated persons to the local courts. Traditional or customary ad hoc systems of justice are often used in camps. These systems provide mediation, resolution, and punishment practices utilized in countries or communities of origin, which are transferred in part or whole and adapted to the refugee camp setting. Elected or appointed refugee elders, traditional judges, or refugee leaders can arbitrate disputes, assign guilt, impose punishment, and administer such practices. The refugee community may view them as representative, transparent, impartial, and affordable, thus offering refugees a continuation of the system from their country of origin. Their rulings are likely to be accepted by the community, which will reinforce respect for their sanctions. Additionally, these systems offer both easy access and a quick response to victims.


Military missions that involve IDP/refugee operations are complex and require an understanding and assessment of the environment. Establishing security is the immediate goal, along with establishing close linkage with USAID, UNHCR, and nongovernmental organizations or intergovernmental organizations operating in the area. This will create a positive setting for further stability. There is a vast amount of literature on how to secure camps. The problem lies with the implementation of the ways and means that have been suggested in the literature to ensure the safety of refugees in camps. Some of the suggestions may not be practical enough and others are generalized, but the main problem seems to be a lack of commitment and motivation by supporters and an effective host nation government to implement the suggestions. The military would prove useful in refugee or IDP operations by implementing the suggested ways and means, along with having the commitment to effectively execute law and order tasks.


U.S. Department of the Army. FM 3-19.40, Military Police Internment/Resettlement. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2001.

Lethome Asman, Ibraham, and Maryam Sheikh abdi. FRONTIERS Program, Population Council. 2008. Islam.pdf (accessed 13 April 2012).

Davis, UC, ed. Migration News Volumne 19 Number 1; Global Population. January 20, 2012. (accessed April 17, 2012).

Refworld-The Leader in Refugee Decision Support. 10-December. 2007. (accessed 21 April 2012).

UNHCR. UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (website). (accessed 13 April 2012).



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