April 16, 2018

Fact Sheet on Internal Displacement

Written by GP20 Campaign partners

What is internal displacement?

Internal displacement describes the situation of people who have been forced to leave their homes but have not left their country. Millions of people are uprooted from their homes or places of habitual residence each year in the context of conflict, violence, development projects, disasters and climate change and remain displaced within their countries’ borders. Millions more live in situations of protracted internal displacement or face chronic displacement risk.

Who are internally displaced people?

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998).

This notion of an IDP is therefore based on two components:

  • that the person’s movement is coerced or involuntary (to distinguish them from economic and other voluntary migrants); and
  • that the person stays within internationally recognised state borders (to distinguish them from refugees)

A person does not need to be a citizen of his or her country to be considered an IDP; habitual residence is enough. Non-citizens, foreigners, and stateless people may also qualify as IDPs if they fled their habitual residence, a place where they had lived for a significant amount of time and had the intention of remaining.  Former refugees who have returned to their country of origin but are unable to find a durable solution to their displacement-related vulnerabilities should also be considered an IDP.

What is the difference between an internally displaced person and a refugee?

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a “refugee” is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside 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.”

A precondition of being considered a refugee is that a person cross an international border. People who are forcibly displaced from their homes who cannot or choose not to leave the country, therefore, are not considered refugees, even if they share many of the same risks and vulnerabilities as those who do. Because their protection and assistance is ultimately the responsibility of their national government – in some cases the perpetrator of their displacement – IDPs are often in an even more precarious position than refugees.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced people are not the subject of any international convention, do not have a dedicated UN agency working for them, nor do they have a special status in international law. The term “internally displaced person” is a description rather than a legal status which could be granted – and therefore revoked. Instead, the definition of IDPs found in the Guiding Principles and mirrored in regional and national frameworks is used to help identify a category of people with specific vulnerabilities related to the fact that they have been internally displaced.

How many people are internally displaced in the world?

In 2017, 30.6 million new internal displacement associated with conflict, violence and disasters were recorded across 143 countries and territories worldwide. This is the equivalent of over 80,000 people displaced every day.

A cumulative total of 40 million people are estimated to be living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence as of the end of 2017. An unknown number of people remain displaced as a result of disasters or development projects that occurred in and prior to 2017.

What causes internal displacement?

Internal displacement takes place in a wide range of contexts, with multiple and sometimes overlapping drivers. The Guiding Principles provide a non-exhaustive list of the causes of internal displacement, including armed conflict, generalised violence, human rights violations, and “natural- and man-made disasters,” either sudden- or slow-onset. Development investments, such as large infrastructure or urban renewal projects, can also cause displacement and human rights violations on a large scale.

What rights do internally displaced people have?

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement do not seek to create a privileged category of people or a separate legal status. Rather, they are based on the principle that IDPs have the same human rights and freedoms as any other person in the country in which they are located. In situations of armed conflict, IDPs have the same rights as other civilians to the protection provided by international humanitarian law.

What are the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement?

A milestone in the institutional history of internal displacement was the creation of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998. The Guiding Principles set forth 30 principles that outline the rights of internally displaced people (IDPs) and the responsibilities of national governments to protect and assist them. They detail the guarantees relevant to the protection of and assistance to IDPs during displacement until their achievement of durable solutions through return, reintegration or settlement elsewhere in the country. They also cover protections against arbitrary displacement. The Principles emphasise the primary responsibility of national authorities for protecting and assisting all IDPs, regardless of the cause of their displacement.

The Guiding Principles note that arbitrary displacement is prohibited (Principles 5-7). Once persons have been displaced, they retain a broad range of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, including the right to basic humanitarian assistance (such as food, medicine, shelter), the right to be protected from physical violence, the right to education, freedom of movement and residence, political rights such as the right to participate in public affairs and the right to participate in economic activities (Principles 10-23).

Displaced persons also have the right to assistance from competent authorities in voluntary, dignified and safe return, resettlement or local integration, including help in recovering lost property and possessions. When restitution is not possible, the Guiding Principles call for compensation or reparation (Principles 28-30).

What challenges do internally displaced persons face?

People forced to flee or leave their homes – particularly in situations of armed conflict – are generally subject to heightened vulnerability in a number of areas. IDPs can live under threat of physical attack, sexual- or gender-based violence, and run the risk of being separated from family members. They are frequently deprived of adequate shelter, food and health services, and often lose their property, land or their access to livelihoods.

IDPs may be discriminated against for being displaced or for coming from a faraway place. They often lack identity cards, which makes it more difficult for them to access basic services and prevents them from exercising their political and civil rights. They can struggle for years or even decades with psychological trauma experienced during displacement.

Whose responsibility is it to protect and assist internally displaced persons?

National authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to protect assist IDPs. The concept of sovereignty as responsibility is at the core of the Guiding Principles. The Principles then proceed to spell out what this responsibility requires in all phases of displacement. The international community’s role is complementary.

At the international level, no single agency or organisation has been designated as the global lead on protection and assistance of internally displaced persons. The UN Secretary General has urged the international community “to collectively work towards a clear, ambitious and quantifiable target for reducing new and protracted internal displacement, in a dignified and safe manner” by 50 per cent by the year 2030. He encouraged humanitarian and development actors in particular to work collaboratively across silos and mandates “to implement plans with a clear and measurable collective outcome” to reach this goal.