Coronavirus crisis: internal displacement

In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), internally displaced people are especially at risk. Whether they were forced to flee their homes because of conflict, violence or disasters, millions of IDPs worldwide live in densely populated areas, are unable to self-isolate, and lack access to water, sanitation and basic healthcare.

Covid-19 can affect anyone. For internally displaced people (IDPs) who already have difficulty accessing adequate housing essential services and a decent income, the impacts of the pandemic will be significant. Its immediate effects on health and wellbeing, and its longer term social and financial consequences mean that IDPs will need more assistance than ever.

In these exceptional times, we commit to collate and triangulate information from our our many existing data partners on the ground. Through this dedicated web page, we will provide updates on how Covid-19 is affecting IDPs across the world.

The sections below provide information on the impact of the spread of coronavirus on IDPs’ health, livelihoods, housing conditions and education, as well as insights into how the pandemic could lead to new internal displacement, now and in the future.

This page will be updated regularly as more evidence becomes available.

 

Voices from the field

Our colleagues from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provide updates on how Covid-19 is affecting IDPs in the field.

Mali

Cameroon

Somalia

Cameroon

 

Coronavirus risk and new displacements

Browse the interactive map to see: 1) which countries/territories are most at risk from the health and humanitarian impacts of Covid-19, and 2) new displacements in these countries/territories since April 1, 2020.

The risk data comes from the INFORM COVID-19 Risk Index and the displacement data is aggregated by IDMC.

"It is still too early to fully grasp how Covid-19 will affect the tens of millions of people displaced inside their own countries – many of them fragile ones, with strained health systems and infrastructure. We can only imagine what it will mean for the women, men and children living in displacement camps, overcrowded slums or small apartments for whom access to clean water, healthcare and government support is limited, and who will suffer disproportionately from its impacts. As the world gradually uncovers the devastating long-term consequences of this virus, the world’s internally displaced risk becoming the pandemic’s most tragic victims."

Alexandra Bilak, Director, IDMC (Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC)


Impacts

While most people infected with Covid-19 experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover without requiring special treatment, older people and people with underlying conditions are more likely to develop serious illness. In many countries affected by high levels of internal displacement, the health system will likely not have the capacity to cope with the pandemic. In the Central African Republic for instance, only three ventilators are available for a population of almost five million people including 641,000 IDPs.

At the end of 2018, more than 3 million people living in internal displacement because of conflict or violence were over the age of 60, and at higher risk of requiring healthcare as a result of Covid-19. These figures do not account for people living in internal displacement linked with disasters or the impacts of climate change.

IDPs of all ages are also more likely to suffer from poor health than non-displaced people, particularly when they have been uprooted for a long time and live in severe conditions. Studies reveal higher mortality rates among IDPs than the general population, mostly the result of communicable diseases and mal or under-nutrition, which is particularly prevalent among young and older IDPs. Food insecurity is expected to rise as a result of the pandemic in many countries.

The increased health risk for IDPs results from various factors that are linked with their displacement. Their reduced financial resources can prevent them from seeking healthcare and buying protection, such as masks or alcohol-based hand rub, while their often poor housing conditions mean they may not be able to self-isolate, implement social-distancing or even access water and sanitation to follow instructions from health authorities.

In addition, anxiety and social isolation that can result from lock-down measures can further affect IDPs mental health. Research has shown that IDPs are at higher risk of anxiety, depression and other forms of distress that can become exacerbated by the psychological impact of quarantine and the global health crisis.

The spread of Covid-19 in displacement camps and IDP settlements where health facilities are already insufficient, and conflict or disaster-affected countries with struggling health systems, is alarming and must be considered as a priority response to the pandemic.

Lock-down measures and the economic crisis that has accompanied the spread of Covid-19 throughout the world is already affecting the financial resources of the most vulnerable, and is likely to have long-term repercussions on local, national and global economies. For IDPs who are more often dependent on insecure and informal employment than non-displaced people, concerns are even higher. This is particularly true in low- and middle-income countries, where most people internally displaced by conflict and violence live, and where they may not be able to access any governmental safety net.

The spread of Covid-19 is expected to reduce livelihood opportunities even further for months to come. IDPs will be less able to sustain this financial shock as they have fewer savings and weaker support networks. Added to this is the reduced access to aid and humanitarian support. As funds all over the world are redirected to fight the spread of the virus, already underfunded displacement crises risk falling off the radar entirely. Loss of remittances from relatives abroad, also unable to work, is likely to further exacerbate vulnerabilities.

IDPs need continued access to financial resources to meet their basic needs, protect themselves from the virus, seek healthcare if needed, and return to income-generating activities as soon as possible after the pandemic. Without appropriate support to overcome the economic impacts of Covid-19, IDPs risk being pushed even further out of sight.

Among the basic protective measures against the new coronavirus, the World Health Organization advises everyone to wash their hands frequently using soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, maintain social distancing and isolate if sick. None of these are easy to achieve in overcrowded displacement settlements where IDPs often lack access to water and sanitation.

This is especially true in under-serviced displacement camps, sharing limited space with host communities, in emergency shelters or informal settlements. Poor housing conditions can increase IDPs’ vulnerability to Covid-19. Lack of space and privacy can also exacerbate the psychological impacts of the pandemic and lead to higher levels of anxiety.

Loss of income due to Covid-19 may also expose IDPs living in rented accommodation to a heightened risk of eviction. Rent is one of the most significant costs for IDPs, and many already struggled to keep up their rent payments before the pandemic.

Containment measures related to Covid-19 have led to temporary school closures around the world. As of 8 April 2020, these closures are impacting over 91 per cent of the world’s student population.

This disruption in education is likely to create more challenges for students who were already behind or facing difficulties in learning. Research has shown that this is often the case for internally displaced children and youth.

Internal displacement interrupts children’s education and separates them from their familiar school environment, teachers and classmates, sometimes for months or even years. When they are able to go back to school, they have to make up for lost time while managing the stress and trauma associated with their displacement. Nearly every country affected by displacement yields evidence of lower enrolment and achievement rates and higher drop-out rates among displaced children.

This underlying difficult learning environment for internally displaced children can be further exacerbated by the current school closures. Disruptions in education can harm displaced children’s well-being and increase their psychosocial instability, while potentially affecting their future livelihood opportunities. Providing alternative methods for continued learning in times of a global pandemic is another essential aspect of the Covid-19 response in internal displacement settings.

Displaced and migrant communities may be exposed to a heightened risk of xenophobic attacks and discrimination in the context of the pandemic.

Worldwide, concerns have also been raised that confinement measures could lead to an increase in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence. Internal displacement is already associated with increased violence against women, partly as a result of the stress and financial strain of displacement. This pre-existing vulnerability is likely to be exacerbated by the current situation as IDPs experience acute levels of stress and loss of income caused by Covid-19. Displaced people are also more likely to be living in overcrowded shelters, which will make confinement especially challenging.

Violence against children, which is also higher in internally displaced populations, may increase further. Children already exposed to physical, psychological or sexual abuse in the home would be at even higher risks in confinement. The economic crisis associated with Covid-19 could prompt financially struggling IDPs to adopt negative coping strategies, including child labour or early marriage, resulting in further protection challenges.

Covid-19: Multiplying the risk of new displacements?

(Photo: MFD/Elyas Alwazir)

As well as impacting the lives of displaced people, Covid-19 can also influence patterns of displacement and potentially generate further displacement itself. In countries including India, Myanmar and the United States, there have been reports of medical personnel being evicted from their homes because of fears of contagion; others have been subject to discrimination within their communities. In the future, loss of income resulting from Covid-19 could lead to further evictions.

Meanwhile, movement restrictions have prevented many people worldwide from going back to their homes. Peru has set up shelters for people stranded as a result of the state of emergency.

Border closures also prevent people from seeking international protection, which could result in an increase in internal displacement as people struggle to find safety inside their country of origin. Most of Syria’s borders are now closed. South Sudanese who attempted to enter Uganda after the country’s borders were closed have been returned to South Sudan, where they are exposed to the risk of repeated displacement.

Some Venezuelans in Colombia, however, are reported to be returning to their country of origin because of the loss of income resulting from the current health crisis; upon return, many are likely to find themselves living in situations of internal displacement.

Go deeper: further reading