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Addressing the issue of internal displacement

Jeff Crisp

A new report from a 'High Level' UN Panel seeks to transform the way in which states
and the international community address the plight of people who are displaced within
their own country. While the report (link below) presents a plethora of worthy
recommendations, many obstacles stand in the way of their effective implementation,
while the very notion of 'internally displaced people' requires further consideration.

International action

In 1986, I co-authored a book which observed that “nobody knows how many people
have been displaced within their own country.” Unlike refugees, it pointed out, “there is
no special agency to protect and assist such people. There is very little international law
to regulate their treatment. As a result, many live in conditions of extreme insecurity and
abject poverty.”1

Since those words were written 35 years ago, numerous steps have been taken to
address and ameliorate the plight of the world’s Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

In 1992, the United Nations appointed a Special Representative for IDPs, and six years
later established a set of Guiding Principles, detailing the rights and forms of protection
to which the internally displaced are entitled.

Over the past 15 years, legislation has been established at the national and regional
levels to ensure that those rights are respected, while a growing number of states have
adopted IDP policies explicitly based on the Guiding Principles.

At the same time, Intense advocacy has been undertaken on behalf of IDPs, involving
NGOs, human rights organizations and civil society. In addition, the humanitarian sector
has agonized for many years over the way that IDP protection and assistance can best
be coordinated amongst the many different aid agencies involved in such work.

1 Refugees: the dynamics of displacement, Zed Books, 1986.

That issue was supposedly put to rest in 2005, when the so-called ‘Cluster Approach’
was introduced, its intention being to establish a clearer and more predictable division of
labour amongst those organizations.

A global crisis

Despite all of these efforts, very little appears to have changed with respect to the
challenges confronting those people who have been displaced within their own country.

According to a new report from a High Level Panel established by UN Secretary-

General Antonio Guterres, in recent years there has been an “unrelenting climb” in the
number of IDPs uprooted by persecution, violent conflict and natural disasters. Their
number now stands at some 55 million, a “global crisis” that is now being exacerbated
by the combined effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once people have been forced to move, they might never be able to return to their
former place of residence. “Millions of people are trapped in protracted displacement,”
the report explains, obliging them to live for years or even decades on end in precarious
situations where they experience “high levels of human rights violations and human

According to the Panel, internal displacement not only devastates those who are
displaced but also puts serious strains on the communities and states where they are to
be found. It can stall and even reverse any progress that affected countries have made
with respect to the development process, disrupting local economies, increasing
poverty, reinforcing inequalities and exposing both IDPs and their local hosts to
heightened risks.

Two important issues are raised by the new report. Why has so little progress been
made in addressing the issue of internal displacement over the past four decades? And
what can be done to strengthen the international community’s future response to the

With respect to the first of those questions, the Panel provides a useful (if somewhat
familiar) account of the obstacles that stand in the way of a more effective approach.
The states and non-state actors responsible for displacing large numbers of people are
able to do so with impunity, while the governments of countries affected by internal
displacement have often been reluctant to take ownership of the issue.

According to the report, the humanitarian agencies that work on behalf of IDPs lack
resources, capacity and are often obliged to work in very difficult operational
environments. Despite the introduction of the Cluster Approach, the response to
situations of internal displacement has often marred by competing organizational

At the same time, both states and international organizations have adopted short-term
and relief-oriented approaches to the issue, with a limited appreciation of the far-
reaching and long-lasting costs that are incurred when IDPs are unable to find a lasting
solution to their plight.

An alternative approach

In terms of a strengthened response, the Panel presents a wide-ranging set of

recommendations, the central theme of which is the need to adopt a long-term,
solutions-oriented and developmental approach to the problem of internal displacement,
replacing the existing focus on humanitarian relief.

To achieve this objective, the report emphasises the need for “national ownership” of
the IDP issue, supported by a “whole of society” and “whole of government” approach
that effectively integrates the work of development actors, the private sector and civil

To facilitate this approach, a Special Representative on Solutions to Internal

Displacement should be appointed by the UN, and a Global Fund on Internal
Displacement Solutions established to provide financial and technical support to
national government plans.

Linking the issue of internal displacement very directly with the attainment of the
Sustainable Development Goals, the report concludes that “internal displacement needs
to be proactively addressed to ensure that the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’
includes IDPs and the communities that host them. “

Given the precarious situation in which many IDPs live and the very real prospect that
they will never be able to resume peaceful and productive lives in the place of their
choice, it is difficult to argue with the objectives and strategies set out in the report. At
the same time, some questions can be raised with respect to their feasibility.

Constraints and limitations

First, while the Panel was encouraged by the Secretary-General to “think boldly, freely
and outside the box,” the report has all the usual hallmarks of a document prepared
under the auspices of the UN and on the basis of discussions between members of the
international establishment who were expected to reach a consensus on their findings
and recommendations.

Thus the report does not name and shame governments with respect to the
displacement and maltreatment of their citizens, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar and
Syria being four evident cases in point. Nor does it point the finger at armed groups
such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram or the drug cartels of Central America and
Mexico that deliberately use displacement as a means of controlling people, territory
and resources.

While calling for “enhanced coordination modalities” the report has little to say about the
Cluster Approach, which in the eyes of many UN and NGO officials has proven to be a
heavily process-oriented and time-consuming way of working that can actually impede
aid delivery.

And most strikingly of all, the report takes the whole IDP concept at face value, never
asking whether it really makes conceptual or operational sense to separate them from
other people whose rights have been violated and needs left unmet, including those
who are unable or unwilling to leave their usual place of residence.

As witnessed in Syria, for example, civilians who are trapped in besieged cities or who
are caught between the front-lines of opposing armies are just as if not more vulnerable
than those who have been forced to flee.

Similarly, the tendency to regard the internally displaced as a quasi-legal category of

people begs some other unresolved questions. Should an earthquake victim who has
not moved at all but who is living in the rubble of their home be considered as an IDP?

If someone has been displaced two or three decades ago and has no prospect or
intention of returning to their former place of residence, should they continue to be
regarded as an IDP?
And how easily can a distinction be made between displaced people who have moved
from the countryside to cities and other migrants who have undertaken the journey from
rural to urban areas? Are we moving towards a situation in which there will have to be
some kind of status determination procedure to decide who is an 'urban IDP'?

Second, the Panel honestly observes that “making major improvements to the global
internal displacement crisis will not be an easy task,” and in that respect hints at the
many obstacles that stand in the way of its own recommendations.

Are states with large IDP populations ready to place a much higher priority on improving
the welfare of their uprooted populations? Are they prepared to use their own resources
and capacities in order to attain that objective? And will governments adopt the inclusive
approach recommended by the report if to do so means making compromises with
political opponents?

At a time when aid budgets are being squeezed by the need to respond to the climate
and COVID-19 emergencies, are donor states ready to contribute to a new fund on IDP
solutions? Is it not the case that the industrialized states are much more concerned
about displaced people who cross international borders and move in their direction, an
issue exemplified by the complete exclusion of IDPs from the Global Compact on

And how easy will it be to adopt long-term and developmental approaches in the early
stages of an IDP emergency - a task that has usually eluded UNHCR in the refugee
context, despite numerous efforts to do so?

Just as states in the Global South have proved reluctant to see scarce development
resources being used to the benefit of areas populated by refugees, will governments
be willing to prioritize areas affected by internal displacement, especially when the IDPs
concerned are perceived to be less than loyal to the incumbent administration.

Finally, because the implementation of the report’s operational recommendations is

likely to prove so challenging, there is a risk that attention will shift to less substantive
and more procedural issues, a fate that already seems to have befallen the Global
Compact on Refugees.

Is there, for example, a need for a Special Representative on Solutions for IDPs, when
the UN already has a Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs (who,
somewhat bizarrely, was not a member of the High Level Panel)? Will the lives of IDPs
really be transformed by having separate meetings of a Group of Friends, a Coalition of
Champions, a Development Contact Group and a Private Sector Advisory Board?

And why should the UN publish an annual State of Solutions to Internal Displacement
Report (to be released on a proposed World Internal Displacement Day), when the
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a Geneva-based NGO, already produces a
global report on the issue each year.

In conclusion, the High Level Panel’s report has undoubtedly placed an important
spotlight on the issue of internal displacement and offered an extensive menu of
recommendations with respect to the way that it might be addressed by states and the
international community.

But in a world that is characterized by a proliferation of actors that use violence with
impunity, where international humanitarian and human rights law is routinely flouted and
where there is a declining commitment to multilateralism and global governance,
preventing internal displacement and finding protection and solutions for the world’s
IDPs could prove to be elusive goals.

6 October 2021

Dr Jeff Crisp is affiliated to the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford and Chatham House
in London. He was previously head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR.

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