26 Million and Growing

A Three-Step Plan for Helping Internally Displaced Persons

Interactive map shows the rising number of internally displaced persons worldwide, and Natalie Ondiak offers a three-step plan for addressing the issue.

The number of refugees—people forced to flee across borders—has dropped in recent years, from 18 million in 1992 to 13.9 million in 2007. Yet while less movement is happening across borders, significantly more is occurring within borders, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. When the internally displaced were first counted in 1982, 1.2 million internally displaced persons, or IDPs, were counted in 11 countries. By 1998, there were an estimated 20 million IDPs, and in 2007, the last year for which data is available, there were 26 million in at least 52 countries.

There Are at Least 26 Million Internally Displaced People in 52 Countries

Roll over the map, or zoom in to see the number of IDPs by country

All Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Three key factors are contributing to the growing number of internally displaced:

1. Many countries have in recent years made entry more restrictive, forcing people to flee their homes but stay within their countries.

2. The nature of conflict has shifted from large, interstate wars to small, intrastate wars, often called “new wars.” Because war is more localized, displacement also tends to occur “closer to home”—within countries rather than internationally.

3. Academics and policymakers have only recently begun recognizing IDPs as an important group and a separate group from refugees and discovering that the movement of people is far less discreet than ever imagined. The basic fact that they are now being counted differently has added to the explosion in numbers.

The debate around IDPs has so far concentrated on issues of sovereignty: Should states be allowed to do what they want with their citizens? And when do states have a responsibility or a right to intervene? These questions are important, but they are not operational. We need to implement a clear approach for addressing and preventing internal displacement, including raising awareness about the issue as it relates to conflict, strengthening the legal instruments that address internal displacement, and engaging in creative policymaking. It is only through these efforts that ideas about internal displacement can be turned into action.

Internal displacement is directly tied to areas of conflict. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the largest internally displaced populations in 2007 included Iraq, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. Conflict in these areas is primarily due to internal political dynamics rather than regional or international political upheaval. Indeed, governments caused or contributed to displacement in 21 of the 28 countries with new internal displacement in 2007. Rebel groups were responsible for forced displacement in 18 of the 28 countries.

Governments and/or rebel groups often deliberately target their own people either for political, military, or economic gain, or because people are from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. Wartime chaos in Iraq, for example, has allowed militias to proceed with targeting ethnic and religious groups; there were 700,000 people internally displaced in Iraq in 2007 alone, and a total of 2.7 million IDPs since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Afghanistan also has some 129,000 internally displaced persons. While this number is relatively small, there are currently 2 million Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan, and 900,000 in Iran. Sudan has the world’s largest internally displaced population—6 million people. The Janjaweed attacks in the Darfur region since 2003 have also created 2 million refugees over five years, and displacement into Chad is now causing regional strife and insecurity there, as well.

Internal displacement is linked to power: forcibly removing civilians from specific areas is a way of establishing control. It destabilizes people’s lives in the most fundamental ways so that everyday home life is destroyed, access to basic services ceases, and urban and rural terrains change beyond recognition. The political implications are more troubling; governments are supposed to provide a stabilizing force in people’s lives. When governments systematically target their citizens and destabilize their own populations, it is a precedent that warrants international attention.

What fully marginalizes the internally displaced is that they become a population without rights—their government intentionally targets them or fails to protect them, and because they have crossed no internationally recognized border, they have none of the same privileges as refugees, whose rights are enshrined by law.

Sovereignty, in cases of internal displacement, is ironically used to justify forced movement and is the main argument for why outsiders should not question perpetrators or take action on behalf of internally displaced persons. Within a conflict context, chaos helps justify forced displacements because it could be seen as a necessary action taken in wartime. The sovereignty imperative is at the heart of the matter, but is state sovereignty more important than the rights of individuals?

This tension between state and individual rights has been taken up in two principles: the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Both are based on the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility”—that is, sovereignty as a form of responsibility to one’s own displaced people. The Guiding Principles refer to the internally displaced directly, while Responsibility to Protect refers to humanitarian crises more generally.

The Guiding Principles were developed when the United Nations appointed a Representative of the Secretary-General on Internal Displacement in 1992. The Guiding Principles, introduced to the United Nations in 1998, are based on humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law. And the provisions have, in some cases, become enshrined in national laws and policies. Taken on their own, the Guiding Principles are not binding or enforceable, but they hold moral currency and create a framework for developing policies regarding internally displaced persons.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine lays out two basic principles. First, that state sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself. Second, that where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression, or state failure, and when the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert the harm, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect. In short, with sovereignty comes responsibility. This document’s principles, while lofty, have not been made operational, and there is no consensus about how they should be implemented.

Both principles recognize the challenge of state versus individual rights, but neither carry the muscle to deter, prevent, or punish those countries involved in carrying out internal displacement.

We need a three-step process to turn these ideas into action:

Build awareness: There is little knowledge about the consequences of internal displacement. More research should be conducted to learn about internal displacement and its relationship with conflict. Internal displacement issues have thus far received attention from policy-makers and academic researchers, but the general public also needs to be educated about displacement’s causes and consequences through media coverage of conflict and instability.

Strengthen legal tools: While the United Nations has developed “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” international and regional tools must be strengthened. The responsibility to protect doctrine must become more than a theory about the relationship between states and the individuals who live there.

Creative Policymaking: Internal displacement illustrates civilians’ vulnerability. “New wars” use civilians as pawns—and create tension between individual protection and state sovereignty. The responsibility to protect doctrine should therefore be extended to encompass those targeted and forced to flee their homes within their own countries. Pressure must be exerted by the United Nations and the international community to effectively treat symptoms inherent to weak and unstable states. Governments that have predatory tendencies must be targeted by diplomatic and economic sanctions and media scrutiny. Internal displacement can be symptomatic of genocide, crimes against humanity, or an impending refugee crisis; regional and international actors cannot therefore simply ignore internally displaced persons.

Internal displacement is one of the consequences of global conflict and instability. It not only changes individuals’ lives; it affects the states in which they live. Ignoring internal displacement creates invisibility for millions of people. In order to find creative solutions to internal displacement, greater awareness, stronger laws, and innovative policy solutions are all required. Displacement should appeal to our common humanity as we try and build a safer, more secure world.

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