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Expert Opinion

The drivers that force people to flee

The current refugee crisis has put migration and human mobility on the international agenda, but the same agenda is tainted by prejudices which are not often based on facts. Across the globe, every day thousands and thousands of people are internally displaced, by conflict, violence, disasters, criminal violence, leaving their homes without any absolute certainty of ever be able to come back.

IDMC’s analysis shows that the most common drivers of displacement are political. Conflict and disasters do not happen in a political vacuum. The majority of displacement crises, particularly protracted ones, are the result of political blockages that prevent adequate protection and assistance reaching IDPs and limit prospects for resolving displacement crises. The scope and severity of displacement situations is determined by political factors that include state fragility, weak governance, corruption, prioritising economic interests over internally displaced people’s needs and rights, and the misuse of resources.

As the world comes together today to mark International Migrants Day, we believe that the international response to internal displacement and migration must be informed by a solid analysis of the underlying drivers and their linkages.

Being internally displaced within your own country due to conflict or disaster can easily escalate into displacement across borders, in the quest for greater safety.

It’s vital to get clarity about what constitutes root causes and what are drivers of displacement. Our research shows that analysing displacement drivers is the only way to develop more coordinated and sustainable responses across a wider range of actors.

Additionally it is essential to develop a complementary understanding of people’s capacity to adjust, mitigate and cope with these drivers at the local level, which goes towards helping to explain why and when different people flee.

More data across all phases of displacement, across all situations is required. Combining comprehensive contextual analyses with robust data should allow us to identify ways to reduce displacement risk and to reach sustainable solutions.

Take natural hazards. Our research shows that natural hazards – whether climate-related or geophysical – don’t in themselves cause displacement. It is only when hazards hit highly populated areas and vulnerable communities that they become disasters and cause people to flee.

Additionally, although the relationship between climate change and displacement is not straightforward, we know we can expect climate change to magnify the risk of displacement in the future.

Human-made factors further contribute to the increasing trend in disaster displacement. These include rapid economic development, urban growth and population growth in hazard prone areas.

Rapid urbanisation in developing countries is also a key driver of displacement.  As this increases, hazards will become more frequent and intense. Most cities in developing countries have only been able to absorb their rapidly growing populations through the expansion of informal settlements. These settlements perpetuate displacement by leaving IDPs in crowded and precarious slum like conditions, and increasing their vulnerability to disasters, disease, sexual exploitation, and further displacement.

Looking at these complex issues shows that displacement is far more than a humanitarian challenge. A much broader range of actors need to be included. While prevention and response should be recognised primarily as a state responsibility, there are also roles for non-state armed groups, civil society organisations, the private sector and intergovernmental and international organisations. Of key importance is the need to combine wide-ranging perspectives from those engaged in peace-building, climate change adaptation, land management, security and psycho-social care.

Humanitarians alone cannot address the factors that drive crises and displacement.

Traditionally, policy and operational frameworks have tended to approach displacement according to its immediate precipitating trigger – conflict, disaster, etc. – and this has led to siloed responses. Some governments have adopted distinct national legal frameworks on protection of people displaced by conflict and disaster, and conflict prevention and disaster risk management are still regarded as discrete and separate issues. The result is that there is limited crossover of expertise, sharing of knowledge or joint working. Effective responses to displacement require common frameworks and analysis and coordinated programming.

Most of the drivers are within the realm of political control and therefore can be mitigated through better laws, policies and good governance. We have a unique opportunity to address these in the post-2015 period. The new Paris Agreement on climate change shows just how far we have come and we now have to focus on the next steps in support and implementation. 

Together, the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework, and the action plans that will emerge from the World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III in 2016 have the potential to address the complex roots that underpin today’s displacement crises and to develop indicators to measure the drivers that lead to displacement. It is imperative that this work is formally and coherently linked.

Displacement can be prevented and minimised. But for this, we need a solid understanding of all the factors that drive it. This understanding is crucial for identifying the right actions, investments, and getting the right people around the table.

As we enter 2016, we must remember that behind every statistic is a person struggling to survive, who needs to be seen, to be counted, and to be protected.