The Unaddressed Plight of Internally Displaced Persons  

Iraqis sit in the street outside their tent at a camp for internally displaced people in western Baghdad, Iraq, on February 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Devastating violence and conflicts in many regions have resulted in millions of people fleeing violence, whether in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, or Syria. States have recognized the need to find better solutions for huge migration and refugee flows across international borders, and 2018 will see the negotiation and adoption of Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees. What has attracted less attention, however, has been the challenges for internally displaced persons (IDPs). This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a set of non-binding guidelines that address the plight of IDPs—those that have not crossed an international border, and who seem to have fallen off the international community’s agenda.

IDPs are among the most vulnerable people in the world, and the number of those fleeing violence and conflict in 2016 was estimated at 40.3 million, with an unknown number of people displaced as a result of natural disasters. This is nearly double the number of refugees worldwide. IDPs tend to suffer from extreme poverty, as they are forced to leave their belongings and their work when they flee. They can have difficulties in accessing healthcare services due to lack of proper documentation, the fact that health facilities in host areas often struggle to cope with new arrivals, or the lack of access to medical facilities altogether. Internally displaced children may go months or years without school, and women and girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence. IDPs face dire needs for shelter as well, as most do not find their way to displacement camps. For those that do, they often struggle with limited access to water, sanitation, and energy; and displacement camps are often overcrowded, with few livelihood opportunities. Furthermore, IDPs often face multiple displacement, in that they have fled more than one location.

Syria has one of the largest population of IDPs, estimated at 6.6 million. A majority of these people are living in urban settings, including those living under siege and whose houses have been destroyed. Over a million have sought refuge in IDP sites, often situated in more rural areas, which are described as last resort settlements. One of the key drivers of displacements are conflict-related events, such as the use of explosive weapons in urban areas, and so as the front lines shift, people flee. Most IDPs in Syria have experienced multiple displacements, and rarely find lasting safety. Displacement trends in Syria were described by the UN in 2016 as “fluid and dynamic,” with UNICEF estimating that some children have been displaced up to seven times before reaching safety. All of these issues are often compounded by the fact that crises today are usually protracted ones, and that those displaced will not have a realistic and safe opportunity to return to their homes for several years. Some may also prefer to stay where they are and be integrated there, or be resettled elsewhere. There is a need, therefore, to think about long-term, durable solutions, whether return and reintegration, local integration or resettlement.

The challenges that IDPs face are not dissimilar to those of refugees, but they can be accentuated. If they are not, or are no longer on the other side of an international border, vulnerable populations will not be protected by international refugee law, including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol, and it is highly unlikely that their situation will be addressed by the Global Compact for Refugees.

This is not to say that IDPs do not have legal protections. Despite the absence of a specific international legal framework, IDPs are protected by International Human Rights Law and domestic law at all times, and in armed conflict, benefit from the protections that any civilian is entitled to under International Humanitarian Law. This is the basis for the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which, without creating new legal obligations, identify the clear and existing responsibilities of sovereign states to respond to the needs of IDPs. Building on these Guiding Principles, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa was passed in 2012, affording legal protection for IDPs at the regional level. Several countries, like Kenya or Colombia, have also developed domestic laws and policies based on the Guiding Principles, which provide for the assistance and protection of IDPs. However, global attention to the plight of IDPs has been wanting, in part because it is perceived to be an internal issue to be dealt with by sovereign states, and because highlighting immense displacement crises puts in the spotlight the failure of states in fulfilling their responsibility to protect and assist their citizens. Indeed, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are among the main causes of internal displacement.

This lack of attention is problematic, and not the least because vulnerable populations often experience both internal and cross-border displacement. A majority of people facing violence and conflict will travel inside their own country in an attempt to seek safety and aid, but some may end up fleeing across an international border and become refugees. Those who have fled and obtained refugee status elsewhere may well want, or be forced, to return, and could once again face internal displacement in their country of origin if violence continues or their home has been destroyed. Whatever their legal status, all of these people are in vulnerable situations and are therefore in need of assistance and protection—from the acute emergency phase of their displacement, to a more stable or even protracted displacement—in order to find durable solutions.

The plight of these vulnerable people deserves the attention of the international community. Addressing the drivers and causes of internal displacement, as well as the often long-term needs of IDPs, will ultimately assist in tackling not only the refugee crisis, but also help progress towards and achieve sustainable development. As such, if a Global Compact on internally displaced persons is unlikely, the international community should make the most of existing processes and frameworks, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda, in integrating IDPs concerns and ensuring that truly no one is left behind.

Alice Debarre is a Policy Analyst in the Humanitarian Affairs program of the International Peace Institute.