Lara Kajs | 4 September 2023 |
Every year, millions of people are forced to flee from their homes due to conflict and violence, persecution, human rights violations, natural disasters, and climate crisis. In 2022, Russian aggression against Ukraine pushed global displacement to 100 million persons. Today, the number of people forcibly displaced is 110 million – double what it was a decade ago – and the number continues to rise, creating unprecedented humanitarian need.
More than half of all persons displaced in the world originate from only three countries: Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine as a result of long-term conflict in those countries. The majority of persons displaced from Syria’s twelve-year conflict remain in the Middle East, making it the largest region of displacement. Türkiye hosts the largest number of refugees.
Global displacement not only creates logistical and humanitarian needs, but it also threatens international security and risks the lives of those forced to flee, as well as the lives of those there to help and protect the displaced populations. Asylum seekers, migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) routinely face protection challenges. Unlike general populations, displaced persons suffer significantly higher rates of mortality. The most vulnerable are also at a high risk of physical attack, sexual violence, abuse, arbitrary detention, abduction, and trafficking.
Displaced populations lean on the assistance provided by governments, communities, and humanitarian organizations to survive. Nearly 76 percent of displaced persons are hosted in low to middle-income countries, which depletes limited resources and can devastate an impoverished community. Access to food, shelter, and basic services such as healthcare and education are oftentimes difficult to provide.
Forced displacement is, in most cases, a prolonged existence. Displacement for refugees lasts 20 years on average and exceeds 10 years for most internally displaced persons. The Dadaab camp in Kenya hosts nearly 250,000 registered refugees, many of whom have lived in the camp for more than 30 years. In conflict countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, internal displacement has lasted for a decade or longer – many have experienced multiple displacements since the conflicts began.
Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who “owing to well-found fear of being persecuted for reason of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear is unwilling to return to it.”
In short, the requirement for refugee status is crossing an international border. Persons forced to flee from their homes who cannot or choose not to cross a border, are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, and are not eligible for refugee status. The law is very clear on this. Although internally displaced persons may share many of the same circumstances and challenges as refugees, IDPs do not have a special status in international law with rights specific to their situation.
When you consider that of the 110 million people displaced – 71 million people are Internally Displaced Persons, the reality of what that means is extremely significant.
The overwhelming majority of internally displaced persons are women and children who are especially at risk of abuse. Internally displaced persons tend to remain close to or become trapped in conflict regions. They are often caught in the crossfire and vulnerable to being used as pawns, targets, or human shields by warring parties.
Responsibility to Protect
While IDPs have the same rights and protections as other civilians under International Humanitarian Law, as a critical element of sovereignty, it is the Government of the state where internally displaced persons are found to have the primary responsibility for their assistance and protection. In cases where a country is not adhering to its responsibility to protect and care for its people, especially where war crimes are considered, the international community must come to the aid of those at risk and facing a humanitarian crisis.
There is no single agency or organization designated at the international level, as the global lead on protection and assistance of internally displaced persons. Attending to the needs of IDPs takes the collaboration of many agencies working together in a “cluster approach.” A cluster is when a group of agencies work together to set up and deliver assistance to an area such as food, water, shelter, health care, camp management, and protection.
The countries with the largest IDP populations include Ukraine, Syria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia.
Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are thirty standards that outline the protections available to internally displaced persons. They restate existing international human rights and humanitarian law relevant to IDPs, namely that internally displaced persons have the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as all other persons in their country.
The Guiding Principles note that arbitrary displacement, including forced eviction (the relocation of large numbers of people from their homes), is prohibited (Principles 5-7). They set the standard that displaced persons have the right to basic humanitarian assistance (food, medicine, shelter), the right to education, freedom of movement, and residence. They have the right to be protected from physical violence. They have political rights such as the right to participate in public affairs and the right to participate in economic activities (Principles 10-23). Internally displaced persons have the right to assistance from capable authorities in voluntary, dignified, and safe return, resettlement, or local integration, including help in recovering lost property and possessions. The Guiding Principles call for restitution, compensation, or just reparation (Principles 28-30).
Although the Guiding Principles are not a treaty that can be ratified by states, and thus not legally binding, or enforceable, they are globally recognized as the standard for the treatment of internally displaced persons. However, it is up to the individual countries to respect and uphold the standards.
Photo Credit: Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Sudan by United Nations Photo. Licensed under CC By NC-ND 2.0