Expert analysis

11 March 2020

Internal displacement is not an acceptable alternative to international protection

Being forced to leave your home is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Whether or not you had the opportunity to seek safety within your own country should not be a deciding factor in subsequent asylum applications. Unfortunately, it often is.  

Imagine you live in a remote, mountainous border region. Your family has lived off the land for generations. One day, while you are out in the fields, a loud explosion rocks the valley. You run home, only to find that your home is no more. Your younger sister drags herself out of the rubble. Together, you shelter in a nearby barn. That night, you hear men searching your farm. Distant gunshots echo in the distance.  

The next day, you decide to cross the border. You find yourself in an overcrowded refugee camp, and you are scared for your sister. You hear people talk of a faraway country that offers protection. It is a long and difficult journey. When you arrive, you apply for asylum. Your application is denied. You could have found safety somewhere else in your country of origin, they argue. There was no need for you to seek refuge abroad. 

West Mosul. Credit: Karl Schembri/NRC

This story isn’t real. But it could be. A Sri Lankan Tamil was denied asylum during the civil war because “conditions in Colombo were such that it would not be unreasonable for the appellant to seek refuge there”. An evangelical Christian who had suffered multiple assassinations by Boko Haram in Nigeria was denied asylum because he could have found safety in cities of southern Nigeria, less affected by violence. An Iraqi national, threatened by Al Qaeda in Mosul, found his asylum application denied because he could have sought safety in the Kurdistan region.  

What are internal flight alternatives? 

The concept of internal flight alternatives is sometimes used during refugee status determination procedures as a basis to deny international protection. Over 2,000 applications for asylum from Afghanistan were denied in Norway on the basis of internal flight alternatives between 2010-2016. By 2017, at least fifteen European Union member states had used this concept to deny protection to Iraqi asylum seekers.  

There is no mention of internal flight alternatives in the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the UN Refugee Agency emphasised in 1979 that “fear of being persecuted need not always extend to the whole territory of the refugee’s country of nationality”. The concept also features in the European Union’s Qualification Directive

“Member States may determine that an applicant is not in need of international protection if in a part of the country of origin, he or she: 

  • has no well-founded fear of being persecuted or is not at real risk of suffering serious harm; or 
  • has access to protection against persecution or serious harm as defined in Article 7; and
  • he or she can safely and legally travel to and gain admittance to that part of the country and can reasonably be expected to settle there.” – Article 8, EU Qualification Directive 

What classifies as reasonable remains undefined, although the UN Refugee Agency has argued that the applicant should not be confronted with undue hardship

“If the situation is such that the claimant will be unable to earn a living or to access accommodation, or where medical care cannot be provided or is clearly inadequate, the area may not be a reasonable alternative. [...] A person should also not be required to relocate to areas, such as the slums of an urban area, where they would be required to live in conditions of severe hardship.” – UN Refugee Agency 

How do internal flight alternatives relate to internal displacement? 

Many refugees and asylum-seekers are in fact internally displaced before crossing a border. Cross-border movements are often a symptom of the failure to protect and assist internally displaced people inside their own country. In the face of limited alternatives, those who choose to cross borders should not be punished for doing so. The right “to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In theory, our understanding of reasonableness should prevent the possibility of internal displacement from being used as a basis to deny international protection. In practice, it does not. Many host states seem to consider internal displacement to fall within the boundaries of reasonableness.  

By deporting people whose requests for asylum they have denied, host states also contribute to further displacement. At least ten countries in Western Europe have carried out deportations to Afghanistan, where the cumulative effects of displacement and return are undermining prospects for durable solutions.  

Nowhere reasonable left to go 

Return for a second to our imagined scenario. After your asylum application is denied, you and your sister are deported to your country of origin. You can’t go back to your home – not only has it been destroyed, but the entire region is now under control of a violent armed group. Instead, you decide to remain in your country’s capital. Your agricultural skills are of little use in the city. You find work as a daily labourer, but your income doesn’t cover your rent. After a time, you are evicted. You move to one of the city’s numerous informal settlements. One summer, your shelter is destroyed by a storm. You rebuild. And you wonder: is this reasonable? 

Yemen, 2018. Credit: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC