Today is World Refugee Day. As the campaign says ‘No one chooses to be a refugee’. You will have seen the photos and film from Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. And during the Horn of Africa crisis, there were numerous images from the longest running refugee camp, Dadaab, in Kenya. But refugees, despite their relevance, do not represent the largest group forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, persecution and human right violations.
[In fact, there was an amusing online competition launched by the EU Commission at the time. The game was to manage a refugee camp – like SimCity but focusing on water points, sewage and health centres. The winner of the competition would win a free trip to Dadaab camp. I fully agree with raising awareness of the complexities and reality of these issues. However, at the time the competition was launched I was based in another refugee camp and found the whole concept somewhat distasteful.]
In fact, according to the UNHCR, there are more Internally Displaced people (IDPs) than refugees (28.8 million and 15.4 million respectively in 2012). Even more worryingly, the number of IDPs increased by 2.2 million in 2012 (compared to a 0.2 million increase in refugees). Colombia hosts the largest number of IDPs due to conflict with 3.9 million at the end of 2012 (DRC, the second largest, had 2.7). In the last year, this number has been inflated by those fleeing natural disasters such as floods. And in fact, a significant number have been displaced more than once. Though natural disasters – particularly in China, India, Nigeria – result in the largest number of displaced peoples, conflict displaces millions of people each year. But while in the aid sector, IDP is a commonly used acronym, in the Western public’s daily life, it’s more likely to be misinterpreted as the latest computer or insurance firm. Why are IDPs different to refugees, legally and in the way they are perceived and dealt with. Why is there no legal response to protect these individuals? Why are there few laws, and where available, poorly enforced laws for IDPs?
Why are IDPs different to refugees?
Legally – IDPs are displaced people who have not crossed a national border and so do not receive special status under international law. Practically – often they move in with relatives, friends, or the host community making them harder for aid agencies to reach or easier for them to overlook.
But whether you are a refugee or an IDP, you have been forced to move without a choice. Conflict (the recently published Global Peace Index found that the world had become 5% less peaceful or 5% more violent since 2008), natural disasters, poverty, climate change or insecurity all result in families moving from their ‘home’ to new locations. In these circumstances there is rarely an alternative option. Temporary displacement can be just as unsettling particularly when upon return, houses or lands are found destroyed. There are times when this displacement might ultimately result in an opportunity or positive change. However, the basic principle of having to leave your home is alone a very destabilising event, particularly for children, the elderly, disabled or chronically ill.
So why is there more focus on refugees than on IDPs? The problems that internally displaced people (IDPs) face are not new but they are distinct. Unlike refugees who have crossed an international border, IDPs remain in their nation state and are thus still the responsibility of their home authority. Because of the status, or lack thereof, that international law confers on armed groups, a sub-group of non-state actors, the law itself is insufficient protection for this particular vulnerable group. Because they have been removed from their community, loosing their livelihoods and networks, the removal of many of their normal coping mechanisms leaves them in a unique situation, which is distinct from that of other non combatants during conflict.
There is little doubt that IDPs are currently not sufficiently provided for in terms of protection nor assistance, despite the claim that international law includes clear obligations for the provision of these needs. There are numerous reasons why in reality these obligations are not met which range from specific criticisms of the management of the IDP assistance regime, to wider criticisms of the set up of the international legal system and its continuing verification of the sovereignty of states.
As yesterday’s UNHCR report showed, the number of IDPs is rising with ‘global forced displacement at an 18 year high‘. With reoccurring crises and conflict and instability proliferating, the displaced population will play a key role in building stability. Refugees often have terrible stories to tell, but we must not forget IDPs, as they are no less important to global stability and in many circumstances suffer due to a lack of recognised legal status.