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Expert Opinion

If you don’t measure, you don’t know: the invisible plight of elderly IDPs

Photo: South Ossetian IDP in Skra. Credit: Marco Fieber

Being old and displaced

Old age is a challenge in itself, and many vulnerabilities related to age are exacerbated by displacement. Because of their limited mobility and reluctance to leave a familiar environment, the elderly are usually the last to flee from an unfolding emergency. Older people are also more likely to be separated from their families, and those who live alone tend to be particularly vulnerable.

In many cases, the health of the elderly deteriorates while in displacement, often because their specific health and nutritional needs are not met once their daily lives are disrupted. In addition, the unaccompanied elderly either do not know about the available relief measures or services or find them difficult to access. The sudden change in their environment and loss of social networks on which many individuals rely for informal support also carry a heavy toll on their mental well-being, reducing their sense of independence and control over their own lives.

Negative social selection

Such vulnerabilities are particularly pronounced in situations of protracted displacement and can be observed in Japan and Georgia, two countries with rapidly-ageing societies. In Georgia, most of the registered IDPs have been displaced by the secessionist conflict in the early 1990s, and at least a third of them  are aged 60 years and above. In Japan’s Miyagi prefecture, which was the worst affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters, over 40 per cent of residents in prefabricated temporary housing were over 65 years old according to a survey conducted in 2015.

The process of negative social selection, by which the weaker and more vulnerable groups lag behind in the search for durable solutions, has been observed in Georgian collective accommodation centres and Japan’s prefabricated temporary housing complexes for the displaced. Elderly IDPs see greater risks in moving into unfamiliar environments and because they do not know for how long they may live, many hesitate to invest in new housing. As a result, they tend to stay longer in temporary housing arrangements even when living conditions there may harm their well-being.

Sex and age disaggregated data around the world

Only 20 out of the 53 countries and territories monitored in 2015 for internal displacement because of conflict and violence have IDP data disaggregated by sex and age (SADD): Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Cameroon, Colombia, El Salvador, Georgia, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. This included countries facing protracted displacements such as Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as “newer” emergencies such as Syria and Yemen. In some cases, SADD has been unevenly collected within the country – for example disaggregated data was found only for Kachin and Northern Shan states in Myanmar – or was disaggregated only by age and not by gender as was found in Ukraine.

Even when there is age-disaggregated data, some countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Mali and Syria do not identify the proportion of IDPs aged 60 and over. Information on displaced children is more often available; for example, in Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria age groups are more disaggregated for younger individuals (i.e. less than 1 year, 1-5 years, 6-17 years) and more aggregated for older individuals (i.e. 18-59 years, and above 60 years).

For IDPs fleeing disasters, SADD is few and far between. Most national disaster management authorities have yet to prioritize SADD collection. Some disaggregated information has been collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for major disasters such as the April and May 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Nonetheless, disaggregated data remains sparse for those dispersed outside of official camps and collective sites.

An age-sensitive approach to durable solutions  

Every displacement situation is unique and demands a “leaving no one behind” approach to finding solutions. The plight of elderly IDPs suggests that in protracted displacement many cannot afford to wait for solutions to become truly durable. Rather, attention and resources have to be refocused on catering to their needs here and now. This includes providing workable solutions that will minimize the overall number of transitions that they have to go through and alleviate some of the suffering they have to endure. Collecting disaggregated data is a first but paramount step towards identifying vulnerable IDP groups and meeting their differentiated needs.

For more information, read Ana and Michaella’s new article on elderly IDPs in Japan and Georgia published in the Forced Migration Review, IDMC and HelpAge International’s paper on the impact of displacement on older people, and Mazurana et al.’s paper on the importance of sex and age disaggregated data in humanitarian response.