Africa’s invisible internal displacement

by Ellie Kemp | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Friday, 9 December 2016 10:37 GMT

Women gather to collect water at a motorised borehole at the Muna Internally displace people camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria, December 1, 2016 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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There were 3.5 million new displacements due to conflict and disaster in Africa during 2015, a million caused by flooding alone

Imagine Kinshasa: a crowded, bustling capital of around 12 million people. Now imagine it empty – the streets silent, the houses abandoned. Everyone has fled the city. At the end of 2015, that was roughly how many people had been internally displaced by conflict and violence across Africa.

new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) lays out the sheer scale of the internal displacement crisis facing the continent. There were 3.5 million new displacements due to conflict and disaster during 2015, a million caused by flooding alone. Figures are stacking up to present a similarly alarming picture of Africa’s internally displaced people (IDPs) in 2016.

Behind these figures, there are millions of personal tragedies, many repeated time and again. Each one is a challenge to responders and policymakers.

The crisis unseen

What we can document is only part of the problem, however. One of the most alarming aspects of internal displacement in Africa is how much we don’t know, because the data simply isn’t there. For two major drivers of displacement on the continent, for instance – drought and development projects – scarcely any data is currently collected on the numbers of people affected, their situation and their needs.

Drought, a perennial concern for whole swathes of the continent, has an indirect and incremental impact on displacement that is hard to capture precisely. With climate change intensifying weather extremes, the number of drought IDPs “off the radar” is set to grow.

Urban regeneration, energy and other development projects uproot residents more directly, but developers often underestimate displacement risk and impact at the planning stage and subsequently fail to monitor and publish information on the situation of those affected.

Even for displacement linked to conflict, violence and sudden-onset disasters, which has been monitored for longer, there are holes in the data. Some of the gaps are due to poor or inconsistent survey methodologies, others to a lack of resources for long-range monitoring, obstacles to access, or assumptions about how quickly people are able to go home. Whatever the reason, the result is blind spots where people and their protection and assistance needs should be.

Making good on the Kampala Convention

Reliable data is clearly essential for African policymakers seeking to make good on their landmark commitments under the African Union (AU) Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, commonly known as the Kampala Convention.

December 2016 will mark four years since the convention came into force. As the world’s first legally binding regional agreement on internal displacement, it sets a powerful precedent for other regions in particular by addressing all causes of displacement, including development projects.

Yet realising its pioneering potential relies on having a clear picture of the current situation and the dynamics that drive it. Without more complete data on the numbers and situation of people displaced by the full range of causes across the continent, the AU and its member states cannot effectively plan, implement and monitor efforts to prevent displacement and meet the needs of those already affected.

Filling in the blanks

Improving data collection, sharing and analysis is a priority for the AU, set out in its humanitarian policy framework and 2015 common position on humanitarian effectiveness.

IDMC, the world’s leading monitor of internal displacement, has the tools and expertise to back that endeavour.

Designated national bodies need increased capacity to collect credible, consistent and comprehensive data, drawing on wider sources of information. Computer modelling tools to map intervention scenarios can identify high-leverage entry points for policy decisions. IDMC can support governments and other partners in these ways and others to build up a better picture of internal displacement across Africa. The hope is that, with the evidence base to inform effective prevention and response, ultimately more people can avoid the upheaval and distress of displacement, and instead remain safe in their own streets and homes, fields and lands.

Ellie Kemp, author of IDMC’s Africa report on internal displacement, is a specialist in humanitarian policy, advocacy and protection. She has 17 years’ experience in the humanitarian sector, including 12 years managing emergency and post-conflict programmes in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans.