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.

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 are likely to be significant. Although it is still too early to fully assess the effects of this unprecedented crisis on IDPs’ lives, evidence is emerging of the ways in which the pandemic is heightening IDPs’ existing vulnerabilities and creating new risks. Its immediate effects on health and wellbeing, and its longer term social and financial consequences mean that IDPs will need more assistance than ever.



The lack of precise data on IDPs and limited testing capacity in many areas affected by crises have hampered assessments of how displaced people have been affected by the coronavirus, and how this compares with host communities and non-displaced people. Yet, while it is still early to draw conclusions, there is increasing evidence that IDPs are more vulnerable to Covid-19 than the general population. 

Some of the challenges brought on by displacement, including overcrowded living conditions, poor nutrition and underlying and often untreated health conditions and diseases, would appear to heighten the risk not only of contracting Covid-19 but also suffering severe symptoms among IDPs of all ages. 

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.  Their reduced financial resources can also prevent them from seeking healthcare and buying protection, such as masks or alcohol-based hand rub. For example, more than 90 per cent of those surveyed in the city of Basra, Iraq, in 2019 said the price of consultations, medicines and treatment was prohibitively expensive. 

At the same time, poor housing conditions mean IDPs may not be able to self-isolate, implement social-distancing or even access water and sanitation to follow instructions from health authorities. A study in the city of Kaya in Burkina Faso showed that because displaced households have less space per person, 87 per cent said they would be unable to isolate an ill member, compared with 64 per cent of non-displaced households. 

Beyond the immediate health risk posed by Covid-19, the pandemic is also heightening the risk of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. In DRC, which is home to the second highest number of displaced children under five, immunisation has declined significantly in 2020. 

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. 

Eighty-nine per cent of respondents in a recent survey to measure the effects of Covid-19 on internally displaced communities in Iraq cited loss of employment and/or livelihoods as the main impact. One in four vulnerable families surveyed Yemen had lost all their income since April, and half had lost more than 50 per cent by July 2020. At the same time, Covid-19 has also led to a drastic devaluation of many currencies, pushing the price of basic items to record levels out of reach of already struggling families. A survey conducted in displacement sites in Mogadishu, Somalia, found that more than 65 per cent identified inflation as one of the main impacts on their daily lives, second only to school closures. The spread of Covid-19 is expected to reduce livelihood opportunities even further for months to come. Loss of remittances from relatives abroad, also unable to work, is likely to further exacerbate vulnerabilities as it represents a vital source of income for many IDPs. In Somalia, where around 40 per cent of the population receives remittances from relatives and friends abroad, they may fall by as much as 50 per cent. 

Growing economic hardship has also been linked to a rise in food insecurity. The number of people in need of emergency food assistance in Latin America has already nearly tripled since the start of the pandemic. In the municipality of Soacha on the outskirts of Bogotá in Colombia, which is said to host around 56,000 IDPs, residents began hanging red cloths outside their windows during lockdown to signal that they were in need of food. 

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. Authorities in some countries have taken measures to reduce displaced tenants’ risk of secondary displacement. Several areas of Somalia have introduced a temporary moratorium on forced evictions, leading to a decline in their number in May and June compared with previous months.

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. Countries 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. Out-of-school children are at higher risk of abuse in the home, and the disruption of their education also undermines their psychosocial wellbeing and potentially harms their long-term employment prospects. 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. In Yemen, IDPs might be targeted with misinformation on the pandemic to redirect them to certain areas of the country, based on discrimination.

Worldwide, concerns have also been raised that confinement measures could lead to an increase in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence. While 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 pandemic. The Global Protection Cluster reported at the end of June that Covid-19 was linked to an increase in gender-based violence rates in 90 per cent of the humanitarian field sites in which it was working. Displaced people are also more likely to be living in overcrowded shelters, which will make confinement especially challenging. In Palestine, despite a reported increase in the frequency and severity of domestic violence as families have been forced to spend more time at home, movement restrictions and lockdown measures have also limited life-saving care and support for gender-based violence survivors. 

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.

Voices from the field

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






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)

Covid-19: Multiplying the risk of new displacements?

As well as impacting the lives of displaced people, Covid-19 can also influence patterns of displacement and potentially generate further displacement itself. As people struggle to pay rent due to loss of income resulting from Covid-19, evictions are being reported. Threats and attacks against people feared to be infected, including healthcare workers, may also be resulting in displacement. 

Border closures  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. Rather than resulting in cross-border movements, escalating violence in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions of Niger triggered more internal displacement. 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. 

Go deeper: further reading