Internally Displaced Persons Now Double The Number Of Refugees Worldwide

A report published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) on May 22, 2017, has found that one person every second fled their home within their own country in 2016. There were 31.1 million people newly internally displaced around the world, with 6.9 million new internal displacements caused solely by violence and conflict. By the end of the year, there were 40.3 million people living in internal displacement as a consequence of conflict. This has resulted in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) now doubling the number of refugees around the world.

Predominantly middle and low-income countries are affected by internal displacement. The worst country impacted last year due to conflict was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with 922,000 people displaced, which was a 50% rise from the previous year. Just behind the DRC was Syria with 824,000, Iraq with 659,000, Afghanistan with 653,000, Nigeria with 501,000, and Yemen with 478,000. Environmental disasters had the greatest effect on internal displacement, displacing 24.2 million, and mainly impacted South-East Asia and the Pacific regions.  An ongoing trend into this year has been the combination of conflict and disaster with countries, such as South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, who were affected by both and experienced an increase in internal displacement.

Displacements are usually triggered by events such as conflict, violence and disaster, but are also driven by factors such as poverty, weak state capacity, inequality, rapid urban development, environmental issues, and climate change. Considered to be amongst the most vulnerable in the world, IDPs are a distinct category from refugees and migrants. IDPs are people who are forced to flee their home but remain within the borders of their own country. This contrasts to refugees who cross international borders and are afforded certain international rights and protections in relation to their refugee status. IDPs do not receive the same rights and protections, as they remain under the jurisdiction and protection of their own government, even if it had caused the displacement in the first place.

IDPs are often overlooked as an important issue because they remain within the borders of their home state. Options for durable solutions are limited as they can either return to their place of origin, integrate locally into the area in which they took refuge, or move permanently to another area of their country.  Alexandra Bilak, the Director of IDMC writing for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, stated that “It can easily fall off the agenda because national governments, in some cases, don’t want to acknowledge it and certainly don’t want anyone externally to start looking into the affairs in their sovereign state.” This affects the willingness of states to accept assistance to help their internally displaced population.

A key concern addressed in the report is that there is a persisting global focus on refugees whilst the plight of millions of “displaced people within their countries by conflict, violence and disaster” has been largely ignored. This has been exacerbated by a loss of momentum of “global policy commitments to IDPs.” It was highlighted that despite the UN Secretary-General calling on renewed efforts to address internal displacement and establish a target to halve it globally by 2030, in May 2016, the issue of IDPs was “largely excluded” months later in September at the UN’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants. Lack of recognition on a wider scale is further reflected by the gap in funding for IDPs. Whilst spending was the highest in 2016 for refugee resettlement than any other humanitarian issue, bilateral aid to the least-developed countries in the world, who have the highest level of new internal displacement, was reduced by 3.9% in comparison to 2015.

Current international strategies to address internal displacement are inadequate and unsustainable. They focus essentially on short-term humanitarian assistance which does little to improve IDPs situations in the long term. It has been recognised that it is necessary to combine humanitarian aid approaches with structural development to improve sustainable long-lasting results. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, formulated in September 2015, pledged to “leave no one behind,” and identified internal displacement to be a development issue where development projects in vulnerable countries could minimise displacement.   The continuing lack of commitment and prioritisation of this Agenda, however, has made it less likely to be achieved.

Internal displacement will only continue to rise unless the root causes are addressed by the international community. The IDMC report advocates a “paradigm shift” from a “focus on meeting immediate needs to understanding the interwoven causes and structural drivers of displacement” and moving away from solutions “driven by institutional mandates to jointly investing in reducing vulnerability and mitigating the longer-term impacts of displacement.” This would require combined efforts which involve conflict prevention methods, managing risk factors linked to natural disasters, development efforts to strengthen state and peace building, and continued international diplomacy.

It is also a matter in the hands of those governments experiencing internal displacement to take responsibility to address the needs of IDPs. As contended by Bilak, reliable and up-to-date data on IDPs from countries remains insufficient to fully apprehend the scale of internal displacement worldwide. Recognition by those countries that the issue is both their own obligation and a global matter which requires cooperation, will increase the ability for combined efforts to prevent displacements in the event of future crises.

The concentration of funds for when refugees cross international borders, rather than their initial displacement, is a reactionary solution addressing the end of the process rather than its early stages. Bilak further stated that “people who are displaced over long periods of time and facing huge threats to their daily safety and security will ultimately have to seek protection elsewhere if they’re not getting it in their country.” Therefore, “not enough is being spent on prevention and much more is being spent on the symptoms of these crises.” This is especially highlighted during the Syrian conflict which caused millions to be displaced in the first few years but enormous refugee flows did not begin until 2014 and 2015. To decrease this trend, it is necessary to address all stages of displacement, not just when a person chooses to cross a country’s border.

The international response to address the most recent refugee flows is commendable but should not detract from efforts to support internally displaced persons. It is essential that they no longer be ignored and be given a much higher priority. As stressed by Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “we must remember that behind the figures presented here lie many millions of people whose lives have been torn apart.” Global policy makers should not forget the human lives who are caught up within and affected by the various violent conflicts and disasters around the world.