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Expert Opinion

Displaced but not forgotten: momentum is building to ensure internally displaced are not ‘left behind’

Central African Republic. (Photo: OCHA)

Internally displaced people (IDPs) live in a constant state of anxiety about their protection and well-being. Where will they live? How will they eat? How will they keep their family safe? How will their children be able to attend school? Will they ever be able to return home? These questions rarely have easy answers.

But as time goes by and displacement becomes protracted, IDPs’ questions and concerns run deeper. Once a person is internally displaced, they can remain so for years or even decades. Today, more than 50 countries have people who have been internally displaced for a decade or longer. Too often these people have neither the option to safely return home, nor to integrate into the local community, or build a new life elsewhere – in other words, they lack access to any durable solutions to improve their lives. Most vulnerable are women, older people, people living with disabilities and children left with little hope for their future. Their difficult conditions are often shared by the communities receiving them.


Yemen: schools that are still operational work in 2-3 shifts a day to accommodate growing numbers of students whose schools are used as shelters for internally displaced people. (Photo: OCHA)

This picture is bleak, but the good news is that across the international community, momentum is building towards change. By adopting the 2030 Agenda in 2015, 193 Governments committed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals through in which they vowed to leave no one behind. We will only manage to meet these goals if we do a better job of empowering IDPs. Last year the UN Secretary-General launched an Agenda for Humanity challenging the international community to halve internal displacement by 2030. At the 2016 Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit that followed, many governments, multilateral agencies and civil society committed to a new approach to respond to forced displacement, targeting both short-term and long-term needs, and including communities hosting IDPs and refugees, to improve everyone’s chance of living productive lives over the long term. Later in 2016, world leaders signed onto the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, noting the need for effective strategies to prevent displacement and assist IDPs.

Central to all of these commitments is the recognition that we will not achieve sustainable development if vulnerable people—including IDPs—continue to be left behind. But how do we achieve this? In a new OCHA study, Breaking the Impasse, Reducing Protracted Internal Displacement as a Collective Outcome, Walter Kälin, a former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat, an experienced displacement researcher, articulate the key elements of a new approach to IDPs.

  • First, they call on governments and partners to recognize that in protracted situations, internal displacement is primarily a development and political challenge. A humanitarian response often will be needed to address urgent needs, but a humanitarian response alone is not the solution.
  • Second, they advise governments and partners to act early and decisively to promote IDPs’ self-sufficiency. IDPs should not have to wait until a conflict is fully resolved or all impacts of a disaster have ceased before they can begin to rebuild their lives. Governments and partners should aim to provide opportunities for employment, education and long-term housing to IDPs from the outset of a crisis response.
  • Third, we must all strengthen cooperation across the humanitarian, development and political sectors to achieve collective goals to build the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of IDPs. Given that governments bear the primary responsibility for addressing internal displacement, they should adopt legal frameworks on displacement; dedicate resources for the displaced; and integrate IDPs into their long-term development planning.
  • Fourth, our efforts must seek to help IDPs and their host communities, who are often just as vulnerable. And donors and investors should provide funding and financing options that are multi-year and more flexible to support durable solutions for IDPs.

South Kivu

Kalehe, South Kivu, DR Congo: "I have hope thanks to the trees that were given to me and those I have already planted. These might help us avoid future disasters. It's better to help us protect our fields rather than distribute food to us because it will help us forever" explains Xavérine, a farmer and mother who benefits from a reforestation project. (Photo: OCHA/Naomi Frerotte).

We are already seeing some of these ideas being put into practice. In Colombia, for example, which has 7.1 million IDPs, the government is showing great leadership: its National Development Plan aims to move 500,000 IDPs out of vulnerability by 2018. It has also recognized IDPs as being victims of human rights violations and thus entitled to reparation, and it has focused on formalizing access to land and rural reform in its peace accord with FARC, which will directly impact IDPs.

In Somalia, which has 1.1 million IDPs, despite the enormous pressure the government and partners face in fighting the looming famine, the government has integrated internal displacement into its first National Development Plan, adopted in 2016, as a sign of its strong commitment to support durable solutions for IDPs.

In Ukraine, where 1.7 million people are registered as internally displaced, the government recently created a Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons to help IDPs find durable solutions.

Each of these contexts is different, but they all have one thing in common: determination and leadership from the government on IDPs. We, humanitarian, development and political actors must support these governments in achieving this objective.

Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which was launched to improve our collective response to IDPs. Here is our opportunity to take stock of how far we have come in improving conditions for IDPs. To that end, we call for a high-level event on internal displacement to be held in 2018 to showcase the initial impacts of this new approach. Let us all work together to ensure IDPs and their hosts not only survive but thrive. 

This blog post is an extract from an article published by OCHA.

About the author

Stephen O’Brien is the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.  In his role, he is responsible for the oversight of all emergencies requiring United Nations humanitarian assistance. Mr. O’Brien began this role in 2015, prior to that he was a member of the UK parliament.