Internal displacement

Internal displacement refers to the forced movement of people within the country they live in.

Millions of people are forced to flee their homes or places of habitual residence each year, including in the context of conflict, violence, development projects, disasters and climate change, and remain displaced within their countries of residence. Millions more live in situations of protracted displacement or face chronic displacement risk.

As of the end of 2017, 39.5 million people were living in internal displacement because of conflict and violence. In addition, we estimate that around 7.4 million individuals are in a situation where they either remain in conditions of vulnerability related to their displacement or there is no tangible evidence that they have returned. They may have found provisional, but not durable solutions to their displacement and therefore should still be considered and kept on record. These numbers show that internal displacement is a crisis of enormous proportion and yet, the world is largely unaware.

"Internal displacement is the great tragedy of our time. The internally displaced people are among the most vulnerable of the human family"

Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General


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).

The key elements of this definition (which is descriptive, rather than providing for a legal status) are:

1) The involuntary character of the movement.

2) The fact that such movement takes place within national borders. IDPs include both citizens as well as other habitual residents of the country in which they are displaced, which may include, for example, stateless persons.

Internally displaced people include, but are not limited to:

  • Families caught between warring parties and having to flee their homes under relentless bombardments or the threat of armed attacks, whose own governments may be responsible for displacing them
  • Residents of poor neighborhoods rendered unsafe and uninhabitable, at least temporarily, by the impacts of weather-related, geophysical or technological hazards
  • Indigenous communities forced from their ancestral lands to make way for the construction of dams and other infrastructure projects
  • Families pushed to leave their homes by constant harassment by local criminal gangs
  • Rural communities whose livelihoods are decimated by drought, leaving them unable to feed their families and forced to seek external help elsewhere
  • Communities from coastal, mountainous or arid areas whose land and livelihoods are irrevocably lost because of gradual environmental degradation linked to the impacts of climate change

IDPs are entitled to enjoy the same rights and freedoms under international and national laws as do other people in their country.

Some of the typical needs and protection risks that arise in internal displacement include family separation, loss of documentation, freedom of movement in and out of camps, loss of property, and further exposure to the risk of secondary or onward displacement.

Achieving a durable solution to internal displacement means that IDPs no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are directly linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement.

Attaining a durable solution to internal displacement is a process that can be achieved through sustainable integration:

  • back in the place of origin (return)
  • in the area where IDPs have taken refuge (local integration); or
  • elsewhere in the country (relocation)

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UN, 1998) sets out the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the obligations of governments towards them in accordance with international law. The document emphasises the primary responsibility of national authorities for protecting and assisting all IDPs, regardless of the cause of their displacement.

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

According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, 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 crucial requirement to be considered a "refugee" is crossing an international border. Persons forcibly displaced from their homes who cannot or choose not to cross a border, therefore, are not considered refugees, even if they share many of the same circumstances and challenges as those who do.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced people do not have a special status in international law with rights specific to their situation. The term "internally displaced person" is merely descriptive.