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Internally displaced, internationally disregarded

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Internally displaced, but internationally disregarded: time to coordinate responses for the 41 million people who are uprooted in their own countries

There are now more people displaced within their own countries than at any time in history. On 1 January 2019, our best researched estimate put the figure at just over 41 million internally displaced people (IDPs) worldwide.

Many are displaced long-term, few only temporarily. Almost 11 million people were displaced in the first half of 2019: 7 million as a result of disaster, and nearly 4 million as a result of conflict.

Large numbers of people continued to escape violence in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, the DRC, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

In May, Cyclone Fani in India and Bangladesh drove 3.4 million people from their homes; in April, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar made over 600,000 homeless.

Last week, the UN General Assembly heard plenty more alarm bells about climate change, but another in the litany of incontrovertibly bad facts is that almost all disaster displacement is ‘hydro-meteorological’, or climate-related, in origin.

Data on IDPs can be as surprising as it can be powerful.  Few would think that 2018 saw more people in Afghanistan displaced by drought than by conflict. Even fewer might guess that over 1 million Americans had to flee their homes in 2018, in the face of Californian wildfires and Hurricanes Florence and Michael.  Nor – given the images we see of tented IDP camps physically distanced from urban areas, in places like Badghis in Afghanistan – would people necessarily know that internal displacement is now largely an urban concern. IDP populations in cities like Dhaka and Mogadishu reach around half a million.

The numbers of internally displaced people may rise, but the attention they are given does not. IDPs are ‘internally displaced, but internationally disregarded’. The world needs to remember the people sometimes called its ‘forgotten refugees’.

There are understandable reasons why it sometimes forgets them.

IDPs are often refugees in all but name, but they are seen to be the poor relations to refugees: their vulnerability and visibility are less newsworthy, if only because they have not had to cross a border.

And despite rigorous methodology, data collection is also still haphazard, and its analysis has further to go.

But the world simply cannot afford to dwell too long on the challenge, its gaps and its complexities. It needs to find solutions – to both prevention and response.

That means finding immediate solutions on housing, water and sanitation, education and livelihoods, and finding longer-term solutions to the ingrained problems which cause people to move in the first place.

The IDP challenge is intimately linked to almost every existential threat the world now faces: climate change and the growing incidence of disaster; protracted conflict within rather than between countries; poverty and the stubborn lack of sustainable economic development; the disproportionate suffering of women and children; the constant threats to the human rights – and inherent dignity – of every human being. 

Solutions for those are solutions for internally displaced people.

It’s why the response can only be collective – and why the world must come together and share its best approaches not just to the IDP problem, but also the IDP opportunity, which sees how individuals can actually profit themselves and the places to which they are forced to move.  The good news is that solutions exist, and good examples abound. They are the focus of this week’s second annual internal displacement conference in Geneva.

The solutions are to be found in places like Niger, which in 2018 adopted a national law to commit itself to dealing with internal displacement before, while and after it happens.  Or in Colombia – with 1.9 million internally displaced people and over 1 million people newly arrived from Venezuela – which has created steadily more robust legislation to address the challenges of internal displacement.  It recently strengthened those laws with differentiated and preferential housing arrangements for IDPs.

From the national to the local: city administrations in places like Medellin in Colombia have focused on improving infrastructure in areas with concentrations of displaced people, and empowered both local people and IDPs alike to build and rebuild their own communities. The stories we collect from there – and the world over from places like Kibera in Kenya, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and Mariupol in Ukraine – are about practical solutions to IDPs’ shelter, education, health and welfare. 

Countries seek guidance on how to manage internal displacement and assist IDPs: in the last month alone, governments from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia have sought our advice. They seek data and analysis of the IDP situations they face; they seek best practice on how to do so.

This week in Geneva we will start to make those solutions accessible for all, governmental and non-governmental organizations alike, national and local. Internal displacement is by definition local, but there is global wisdom available to address it. We need to use that wisdom: the task is to help all those responsible for re-rooting the uprooted.