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Expert Opinion

Reflecting on displacement severity


We have recently published our 2019 displacement severity assessment, which looks at conditions experienced by internally displaced people around the world. Because this is only our first attempt, we reflect here on some of the lessons we learned during the process and opportunities for future assessments.

Margaret and her family fled their home in north-eastern Nigeria when their village was attacked by Boko Haram. For five years, they have been living in displacement in the city of Maiduguri. “We have nothing and our hearts are shaking”, she said. “Since we walked here, even this shade we got with difficulty... There are no toilets, not a single one.”

Image of woman and child in front of a tent construction

(Photo: Hajer Naili/NRC) 

What is the severity assessment?

The 2019 severity assessment is an important first step towards better understanding the differing experiences and vulnerabilities of internally displaced people worldwide. The report aims to: 

  • assess the severity of internal displacement, 
  • call attention to situations of particular concern, and 
  • highlight key threats to IDPs’ safety and wellbeing.

By doing so, we aspire to support governments, humanitarian organisations and development actors in responding to and preventing situations of displacement.

The report assesses the severity of displacement in forty-six different contexts around the world, providing a severity score alongside a short explanatory narrative. We find that displaced people are exposed to active fighting in central Mali, where armed groups have imposed sieges on villages, restricting access to healthcare centres, local markets and fields. In South Sudan, despite the relative safety accorded by Protection of Civilian sites, internally displaced women and girls continue to face risks of sexual violence. In the West Guji and Gedeo zones of Ethiopia, water is primarily sourced from ponds, canals, rivers, lakes, and unprotected sources, making it unsafe to drink. People living in protracted displacement in Azerbaijan benefit from government subsidies and credit programmes.

Assessing the severity of displacement, however, is no mean feat. Our assessment comes with a number of limitations which we will seek to improve upon in future iterations of the report.

We need more consistency in defining the populations under study

The assessment compares severity of displacement across groups of IDPs displaced by conflict in different countries and contexts, but the nature of these groups varies wildly.

In some cases, we focus the assessment on specific ethnic groups such as India’s Kashmiri Pandits, or geographic regions such as Lac Province in Chad. Some groups are defined by the causes of their displacement, such as forced evictions in Somalia or the Marawi conflict in the Philippines. The characteristics of displacement have resulted in other groupings, including for example protracted displacement in Azerbaijan and protection of civilian sites in South Sudan. And sometimes, we consider all people displaced by conflict in a given country.

This is the case, for example, for Colombia. Yet we know from are own research that not all IDPs in Colombia are experiencing the same conditions in displacement: Emiliano’s home has a bare cement floor, broken windows and little furniture, but his neighbour Agustín has set up a successful business and is proud of how well he has furnished his home.

Image of Emiliano with face obscured

“I lost everything I had, except for my life and my children.” – Emiliano (Colombia)

We need to expand our assessment to people displaced by disasters

For the moment, we only look at people displaced by conflict and violence. This is because little data is available after the initial emergency phase, which is also why we have so far been unable to provide total numbers of IDPs living in displacement because of disasters. To ensure that people displaced by disasters receive the attention they deserve, we aspire to include them future severity assessments.

“If we must stay here for a long time, we need to survive and we need food”, said Ahmed, who was displaced by drought in Ethiopia. “Right now, we don’t know what we are going to eat tomorrow.”

We need to find new sources of data to triangulate information

Although our monitoring experts received inputs from partners in the field, which they complemented with secondary documentation, some information is difficult to come by. We had to discount eleven countries from the analysis because we simply did not have enough data. In other cases, only limited information was available, which undermines the quality of the assessment.

To reflect this, we have added confidence indicators which show the percentage of questions answered to arrive at the severity score. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, monitoring experts were able to answer just over a quarter of the questions outlined in the methodology.

This severity assessment is only our first attempt. We will continue to work towards refining our methodology in order to provide more systematic and robust assessments. We are proud, however, of these early efforts. Despite its limitations, this report is the first of its kind.