Internal to cross-border movements and returns

Context and main issues

The vast majority of people who flee their homes to escape conflict, violence and disasters do not cross an international border. Of the 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world, 40 million are internally displaced people. Despite these numbers, those displaced within their own countries are often forgotten. Yet internally displaced people (IDPs) are prime candidates for becoming refugees or migrants, while many if not most refugees were internally displaced before crossing an international border. In parallel, returning refugees and migrants are at risk of becoming internally displaced in the absence of durable solutions.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these hypotheses, there is not enough data to determine how many IDPs become refugees or vulnerable migrants, or how many returning refugees and migrants go back home to a situation of internal displacement. Nor is there sufficient understanding of the processes that lead from internal to external displacement and migration, or the vulnerabilities that contribute to protracted displacement or onward movement when people return to their countries of origin. A IDMC has committed to filling this major knowledge gap by investigating the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements, and durable solutions.

Key research areas/work streams

In order to expand our knowledge base, IDMC is advocating for a common dataset encompassing both internal displacement and cross-border flows. This common data model would require partners agreeing upon shared definitions, standards and methods in view of producing interoperable data along the entire displacement continuum. IDMC is currently developing and refining our methodology to capture data on the scale of cross-border movements more systematically. Questions we propose to address include:

  • What proportion of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were previously IDPs?

  • How many refugees and migrants become internally displaced upon return to their countries of origin?

In parallel, to paint a more complete quantitative and qualitative picture of the displacement continuum, IDMC is launching a series of case studies based on primary data collection in a variety of different contexts beginning with Colombia, Syria, and Iraq. By conducting empirical research with refugees, returned refugees, and internally displaced people, informed by the criteria included in the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions, IDMC will examine the drivers and processes of onward movement across borders, and monitor cross-border returns and the risk of future and protracted displacement. Based on the findings of the various case studies, we aim to answer the following questions:

  • Under which circumstances do IDPs cross international borders?

  • Which factors affect refugees’ decision to return, or not, to their countries of origin?

  • What are the barriers to, and opportunities for, durable solutions in the country of origin?


Research partners:

To undertake this formidable task, we have formed partnerships with or are currently reaching out to UNHCR, IOM, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Bank, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Samuel Hall, REACH, the Regional Durable Solutions Secretariat (ReDSS), the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS), and a range of academic and local research organisations.


We will also need the support of organisations and institutions that advocate for displaced people’s rights, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs, NRC, Christian Aid, the International Conference of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), Human Rights Watch and the ACT Alliance. We also invite the support of other international agencies and organisations, NGOs, academic institutions and governments interested supporting the objectives outlined above, whether through a working partnership or financial backing.



IDMC, Nowhere to Return to: Iraqis' search for durable solutions continues. November 2018

IDMC, Returning to El Salvador: Signs of an internal displacement crisis. September 2018

IDMC, Going ‘Home’ to Displacement: Afghanistan’s Returnee-IDPs. December 2017

IDMC, Returnees in Syria: Sustainable reintegration and durable solutions, or a return to displacement? November 2017

IDMC, Internal Displacement and the Global Compact on Refugees: Are today’s returning refugees tomorrow’s IDPs? November 2017

IDMC, The Displacement Continuum: Research Agenda and Call for Partners. November 2017


We are always looking to strengthen and expand partnerships. If you are interested in working with us, please contact us at