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Expert Views: What Would Refocus Attention on Internal Displacement?

The number of people displaced inside their own countries is nearly double the global refugee population, yet this has slipped off international agendas. Refugees Deeply asked several experts what’s needed to refocus global attention on internally displaced people.

Written by Kim Bode, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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People seen at sunset at a camp for internally displaced people on October 29, 2017, in Ain Issa, Syria. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The number of people displaced inside their countries hit 40.3 million last year, nearly double the figure of 22.5 million refugees worldwide.

Internal displacement has been growing in recent years, the result of wars and instability as well as disasters and climate change. The largest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) are in Colombia – some 7.4 million people – followed by an estimated 6.6 million people in Syria.

Yet internal displacement has mostly been overshadowed by global attention on those who flee across an international border, and thus become potential refugees. There is no legal treaty protecting the rights of IDPs akin to the 1951 Refugee Convention. When the U.N. held its first high-level summit on refugees last year, internal displacement was not on the agenda. Yet nearly 20 years ago, the U.N. did adopt standards on IDP protection, the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Refugees Deeply asked several experts on internal displacement what’s needed to refocus international attention on IDPs. They discuss the data, policies and frameworks needed to shift the focus and resources onto people who flee their homes but not their countries.

Elizabeth Ferris, research professor and acting director, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University

I’m tired of hearing world leaders, refugee advocates, academics and the press refer to the unprecedented number of 65+ million displaced people in the world – and then proceed to talk only about refugees. Internally displaced persons – IDPs – make up two-thirds of that number but have been virtually ignored in discussions about what needs to be done.

Don’t get me wrong – clearly the global refugee system is in need of serious attention by policymakers. The lack of responsibility-sharing, the toxic narrative about refugees, and the immoral deals where refugee lives are traded for agreements to stop desperate people from crossing borders all indicate that we’re at a crossroads when it comes to refugee protection. But there is a much larger number of people who are often in serious need of protection and who have been virtually ignored – at least in the public eye.

There is a lack of basic research on IDPs. When I recently reviewed the state of research on IDPs, it was sad to see that researchers are paying less attention to IDPs than they did in the past. As I have written earlier, there is a sense that IDPs have fallen off the international agenda and have been mainstreamed into oblivion.

I wish that a fraction of the attention being given to the two new global compacts would be directed toward IDPs. We need creative thinking. We need basic research. We need new institutional arrangements for responding to IDPs. We need new mechanisms for holding governments accountable for the way they deal with IDPs. We need meetings to talk about these issues. We need a strategy for IDPs. Maybe the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles will offer such an opportunity. Maybe the World Refugee Council will make some bold recommendations for taking the issue forward.

Until we get to that point, I’d respectfully suggest that people stop referring to 65+ million displaced people – unless they also address the specific needs of the 40+ million IDPs.

Simon Bagshaw, senior policy adviser, Policy Development and Studies Branch, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

It is somehow baffling that we need to ask this question. Internal displacement due to conflict and violence has reached an all-time high. IDPs are among the most vulnerable people in the world and their numbers are on the rise. On these grounds alone, their almost complete absence from the international agenda is hard to fathom. How do we make the “invisible majority” visible again?

The 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement next year is an opportunity to challenge the prevailing political climate. It is an opportunity to galvanize states, the U.N. and other humanitarian, human rights and development actors toward robust, concerted and collective action.

This means consistent and – when necessary – courageous advocacy in support of IDPs by states and the U.N. It means leveraging policy and other processes in support of IDPs, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It means promoting the development of national laws and policies on IDPs, through which governments take ownership of their primary responsibility to respond to displacement, with the support of humanitarian and development actors. It means strengthening the evidence base by improving data collection, analysis and sharing. Last but not least, it means empowering IDPs and allowing them to have their say in the decisions that affect them.

Alexandra Bilak, director, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)

IDPs currently outnumber refugees by around two to one, yet receive relatively little political attention at the global level. Persistently high levels of internal displacement underscore the need for more political engagement on this issue, and for increased development spending to be allocated to addressing the structural drivers of displacement, for reducing existing vulnerabilities and future risk, and for mitigating the longer-term impacts of internal displacement.

Rigorous and transparent data on internal displacement is needed to establish a global baseline and measure progress toward targets. Longitudinal data in particular is needed to track IDPs’ needs and vulnerability over time. States are not investing sufficiently in the collection and publication of credible data on internal displacement, despite repeated U.N. resolutions calling on them to do so.

Addressing internal displacement does not require a separate global compact. Given how interrelated the phenomenon is with other global issues, it can and should be woven into existing policies and frameworks, including the SDGs, Sendai [Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction], the Paris Agreement and the New Urban Agenda. To do so, however, a conscious, deliberate and sustained political effort is required.

Oscar Ivan Rico Valencia, adviser to the deputy director, Victims’ Unit of the Government of Colombia

Internally displaced people should be the focus of international attention simply because internal displacement is a phenomenon that causes violations of international human rights law, particularly of children, the elderly, women and ethnic communities.

Although responding to internal displacement is a responsibility of the states, we need an international framework with three purposes: to endorse coordination at local, national and international levels; to emphasize the leading role of the state to work on durable solutions; and to agree upon the data needed to count, respond, evaluate and compare.

We do not necessarily need a greater quantity of data, we need to improve the quality of the data available, consensus on what kind of data we need, and to integrate IDP data with data on the general population to allow comparisons.

Finally, refocusing international attention on internally displaced people allows cooperation among countries to learn from others’ experiences, share the lessons learned and consolidate best practices to end displacement.

Nassim Majidi, founder, Samuel Hall

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) were left out of the Global Compact on Refugees and Migrants. Yet our research in Afghanistan shows that yesterday’s refugees can be today’s returnees and tomorrow’s IDPs. We have to think beyond categories in more fluid terms: Vulnerable populations often accumulate layers of displacement experiences that nurture a cycle of poverty and precarity. Those on the margins – whether refugees, returnees or IDPs – need support covering the emergency phase to longer-term durable solutions.

Frameworks still emphasize returns as the preferred option – but most IDPs will either opt for local integration or resettlement. They have experienced enough loss (of assets, housing, land), traumatic experiences (of conflict and violence) and many simply cannot afford to move again. They have no knowledge of their own rights, and their governments are often ill-equipped to protect their rights: There would not be internal displacement if governments were able to uphold their citizens’ rights.

What is needed is a rights-based approach to supporting governments to prioritize responses to internal displacement at both national and subnational levels, and for the international community to make room for civil society organizations (CSOs) to grow. CSOs can be the first “responders” to match IDPs with local opportunities, to work with communities in a socially sustainable way. This is aligned with the localization of aid agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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