Partner spotlight: Internal displacement and cross-border movements

A partnership with Germany’s Federal Foreign Office

The majority of people who flee their homes to escape conflict, violence and disasters do not cross an international border. Of the 70.8 million people forcibly displaced around the world, 41.3 million – close to six out of ten – are internally displaced people.

We don’t know how many refugees were previously internally displaced, or how many refugees and migrants become displaced when they return to their country of origin. This is a major knowledge gap which IDMC is seeking address by painting a more quantitative and qualitative picture of the entire displacement continuum.


  1. Examine drivers of displacement and onward movement within and across borders.
  2. Provide a better understanding of priorities and preconditions for voluntary return.
  3. Examine obstacles to and opportunities for durable solutions for IDPs and returning refugees.
  4. Review available data on the phenomena and explore how to enhance the monitoring.

How we worked


The global focus on refugees contrasts starkly with the meagre coverage given to the millions of people displaced within their own countries. To put internal displacement back on the agenda, IDMC has been investigating the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements.

With the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, we conducted three case studies in Nigeria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. We conducted 669 survey interviews with internally displaced people and returning refugees in Nigeria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. We complemented the survey findings with the stories shared by research participants and additional key informant interviews.

In addition, we also conducted two workshops with relevant partners in Nigeria and South Sudan to map the data landscape and harmonise standards for monitoring internal and cross-border displacement.

What we found

61.5% of the returning refugees we spoke to had been internally displaced before leaving their country of origin, and over a third had suffered multiple internal displacements before crossing the border to seek refuge abroad.

Pie chart showing percentage of surveyed people who had been previously displaced

Cross-border movements are often a symptom of the failure to protect and assist IDPs in their own country. Only by understanding and addressing causes and drivers of internal displacement will we be able to tackle the global refugee crisis head-on.

When cost prevents movement, it leaves IDPs at risk

Among those who didn’t cross borders, 54% cited cost as a barrier to travel. Especially following the financial losses incurred during initial displacement, many IDPs find themselves unable to afford the costs of onward movement.

The inability to seek refuge abroad can put IDPs’ lives at risk. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are reaching unprecedented levels.

Returns are often motivated by difficult conditions in displacement

Large numbers of vulnerable refugees and migrants from Afghanistan and Nigeria have been forcibly returned to their countries of origin. Even among those who return voluntarily, returns are rarely entirely free from coercion. Some South Sudanese refugees, for example, returned to their country of origin because of political unrest in Sudan. Given the difficulties faced in displacement, many returns take place because of the lack of acceptable alternatives.

Many returning refugees are now internally displaced

Nearly 74 % of returning refugees surveyed in Nigeria, South Sudan and Afghanistan were not living in their area of origin at the time of the research. Many are afraid of continued insecurity. Others tried to go back, only to find that their property has been damaged or destroyed. Some were forced to flee again.

Just as IDPs risk becoming refugees in the absence of progress towards durable solutions, today’s returning refugees run the risk of becoming tomorrow’s IDPs. Refugees who are unable to return to their former homes or sustainably integrate elsewhere become de facto internally displaced; others may be forced to move again if underlying drivers of displacement remain unaddressed. Premature or forcible returns, clearly, are no solution to refugee crises.

Graph showing percentages of IDPs surveyed in Nigeria, South Sudan and Afghanistan who are and are not living in their area of origin currently

Joy's story

Joy’s hometown in north-eastern Nigeria has been the subject of repeated attacks by Boko Haram. Because was close to the border, every time they attacked she would flee into Cameroon. As soon as Boko Haram left, she returned to her home. “That was the routine, until one day they came and took the town for good.”

After the town was taken by Boko Haram, she was no longer able to return. Conditions in Cameroon were very difficult. “We were almost starving”, she recalled. Five years ago, she decided to return to Nigeria. Since then, she has been living in a camp in Maiduguri. The lack of livelihood opportunities is a challenge, and she relies on food rations provided by the government. “There is nothing to do here, we are sitting idle”.

Once it is safe, Joy wants to return to her former home. “If we could go back to where our homes are, who would stay here?”

What next?

Thanks to this research, we know there is a strong relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements. Now, there is a window of opportunity for further uptake and impact, for example as part of the upcoming High-Level Panel on internal displacement. Moving forward, we need to ensure our findings are used effectively to prevent and respond to internal displacement, mitigate the risk of premature returns, and provide opportunities for durable solutions for both IDPs and returning refugees.

We will also engage with partners who can support contextual analysis and collect data on displacement metrics with the aim of refining the analytical framework. Then, we will build and resource the analysis in a sustainable manner in support of humanitarian needs assessments and response plans, as well as national development strategies.