31 December 2013 |

Internal Displacement in the Middle East and North Africa

Figures and causes

The number of internal displaced people in the Middle East and north Africa (MENA) continued to rise sharply in 2013, reaching at least 9.1 million by the end of the year. This represents an increase of at least 53 per cent on 2012, more than twice the number in 2011 and more five times the figure ten years ago. Displacement has increased exponentially since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and the country now dwarfs Iraq as MENA’s largest displacement crisis. Seventy-one per cent of all IDPs in the region are in Syria.

Gathering accurate data on displacement is extremely difficult. Insecurity and armed conflict in Syria, Libya and Yemen hampered humanitarian access and made it difficult to profile those affected. Official statistics based on IDPs’ registration were unreliable. In countries such as Syria, where the authorities are a party to the conflict, IDPs are often wary of registering. The criteria for doing so varied across the region and did not always reflect the definition of an IDP set out in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. In Iraq, registration varied from one governorate to another, and de-registration was based on the acceptance of financial incentives rather than the achievement of a durable solution. A lack of monitoring means little is known about the extent to which IDPs have been able to return, integrate locally or settle elsewhere in the country.

Internal armed conflict, often fought along sectarian lines, was the primary cause of displacement in the region. Since the 1970s, the direct targeting of civilians has also caused successive waves of large-scale displacement. Violations include the intimidation of minorities, the forced recruitment of children and violence against women. The phenomenon first became apparent during Lebanon’s 1975 to 1991 civil war, during which more than a quarter of the population were displaced along sectarian lines. More than ten percent of the Iraqi population were displaced by sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008, as warring factions targeted civilians in an effort to create homogeneous enclaves.

A similar dynamic has emerged in Syria, where Kurds from cities such as Damascus and Aleppo have fled to the rural Kurdish province of Hasakeh, and other minorities have sought refuge on the coast. A UN commission of inquiry reported grave violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of artillery bombardments and airstrikes in urban areas, some of which targeted large concentrations of IDPs. In Palestine, Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and military operations in Gaza continued to cause displacement.

Adverse weather conditions complicated the situation of some IDPs displaced by conflict in 2013. Heavy rain in Yemen destroyed about half of the tents in three displacement camps in Hajjah governorate in August, affecting around 12,000 people. Winter storm Alexa in mid-December prompted the international community to increase humanitarian aid in Syria.

New displacements

New displacements were reported in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen in 2013. Around 3.5 million people, or 9,500 a day, were displaced in Syria. Taking into account the three million refugees from the country, nearly half of its population had fled their homes by the end of the year.

Sectarian violence in Iraq reached levels unseen since 2008, displacing more than 11,750 people, and at least 20,000 were newly displaced in Yemen. In Palestine more than 660 homes, including 122 built by international agencies, were demolished, and at least 1,100 people were displaced during the year.

The majority of the region’s IDPs live with relatives or host communities in urban areas. Less than two per cent of Syria’s displaced population, or around 108,000 people, live in camps, most of them along the Turkish border beyond the control of the Syrian authorities. Around ten per cent have taken refuge in public buildings. By 2013, at least 95 per cent of IDPs in northern Yemen lived with host communities or in informal settlements, and in Iraq at least 150,000 lived in Baghdad’s 241 informal settlements. The sectarian nature of conflicts throughout the region means IDPs often seek refuge with members of their own sectarian group.

Protection issues

IDPs and host communities across the region face serious threats to their physical security. Conflict has also severely weakened social services, leaving IDPs dependent on aid to get by.

In Syria, non-state armed groups control areas where camps are located, leaving IDPs and their children vulnerable to forced recruitment, attacks and airstrikes. Camps are badly managed, resulting in inadequate shelter and sanitation, and poor aid delivery.

The main protection concerns in Iraq are violations against civilians and the assistance needs of those affected, including psychological support.

Demolitions and displacement have reportedly led to increase in domestic violence in Palestine. Female heads of household were at particular risk, given their dependence on male relatives for income in a region where it is culturally difficult for women to work. Palestinian IDPs also faced widespread food insecurity and poverty. In Yemen, the majority of the population lived below the poverty line. In Syria, the price of basic commodities has skyrocketed. The price of bread has gone up 500 per cent in some areas since 2011.

Durable solutions

There were at least 2.5 million IDPs living in protracted displacement in MENA as of the end of 2013, mainly in Iraq but also in Yemen, Palestine and Libya. Obstacles to their achieving durable solutions range from sectarian tensions to a lack of tenure security and residency rights in areas of refuge. The sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq has prevented 1.1 million IDPs from returning to their areas of origin. In Palestine, the Israeli authorities did not allow IDPs to return during the year, but continued to expand their own settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

93,000 IDPs returned to their places of origin in Yemen, most of them in the south of the country. The returns happened spontaneously when IDPs felt the political circumstances and security situation were conducive to doing do. This did not necessarily mean that security had improved, but rather that their trust in tribal affiliations was strong enough to feel safe or that their home areas had become homogenous in sectarian terms.

Legal obstacles and residency issues hampered progress towards local integration and settlement elsewhere in the country. In Iraq, at least 150,000 IDPs have lived for years in informal settlements on public or contested land in Baghdad. They are there without permission and have no access to electricity, water, sanitation or education. Without tenure security, they are at risk of forced eviction and have no alternative housing options available to them. Most IDPs in Libya also live in informal settlements around cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte, where they face similar difficulties.

Years of conflict have destroyed state infrastructure across the region, hampering access to housing, education and health care. In Iraq, nearly 90 per cent of the country’s schools were thought to have been damaged during the 2003 war and its hospitals are overwhelmed. In Syria, medical workers have been directly targeted.

In Palestine, the reconstruction of much-needed shelters for at least 12,000 people in Gaza was still obstructed by Israel’s economic blockade, now in its seventh year, prompting OCHA to complain in 2012 that agencies were responding to a situation of “man-made de-development”.

National and international response

The impact of years of conflict on states’ infrastructure and reach hampered national responses to internal displacement in the region in 2013. Many are also driven by political considerations, which further undermines their effectiveness.

In February, the Libyan prime minister, Ali Zeidan created a bureau for IDPs within his office. The strategy, legislation and response that were to ensue, however, are yet to materialise. Nor has the government managed to re-establish its authority over the country, or to rein in its many armed groups. The situation was similar in Yemen, where the cabinet approved a national policy on internal displacement in June. As of the end of the year, the state’s lack of influence in many of the affected meant the policy was still to be implemented. 

Security restrictions preventing access to IDPs held back the international humanitarian response to displacement across the region. More than ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, UN personnel were still confined to the international Green Zone in Baghdad. In Yemen, the Hadramout region was off limits.

The authorities in Damascus have deliberately obstructed the international response in Syria, and a number of foreign aid workers have been kidnapped in the north of the country. A presidential statement from the UN Security Council issued in October urged respect for humanitarian access. It did not, however, lead to improvements and was followed by a UN resolution in February 2014. Israel’s firing ranges in the southern Hebron Hills and the access-restricted areas it imposes in Gaza are effectively no-go zones for humanitarian organisations.

In Syria, humanitarian organisations have been forced to take the unusual step of providing cross-border assistance. The operations, however, were not enough to address the vast scale of needs in the country, nor were they able to protect IDPs and other civilians. Funding was also an issue. OCHA’s humanitarian response plan requested more than $2 billion but was only five per cent funded as of the end of 2013. In Palestine, more than $7.9 billion has been spent on humanitarian assistance over the past decade, and in Iraq the figure is more than $5.6 billion.