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Missing the heart of the problem: Why ignoring internal displacement undermines the purpose of the UN summit on migrants and refugees

by Alexandra Bilak | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Friday, 16 September 2016 10:40 GMT

Syrian refugee children pose before the visit of actress Angelina Jolie to hold a news conference at Azraq refugee camp for Syrians displaced by conflict, near Al Azraq city, Jordan, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Media attention focuses almost exclusively on refugees, yet they make up only a third of the 60 million people often cited as having been driven from their homes by conflict and violence

The world is witnessing internal displacement on a scale not seen since World War Two. Nearly 28 million people had their lives uprooted by conflict, violence and disasters in 2015. In the first eight months of this year, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has recorded more than 10 million new displacements across 16 countries, with China, Indonesia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen worst affected.

Media attention focuses almost exclusively on refugees, yet they make up only a third of the 60 million people often cited as having been driven from their homes by conflict and violence. The “other” two-thirds are displaced within their own borders. Disasters, meanwhile, mostly triggered by weather-related hazards, have caused more than 203 million displacements over the past eight years, a figure comparable with the population of Brazil. The vast majority of those affected are internally displaced.

Displacement of any kind does not only mean losing one’s home. Those affected are separated from their livelihoods and incomes, and their families and friends – in essence all that is familiar to them. Many suffer deep psychological trauma.

On Monday, the UN General Assembly will convene for its Summit for Refugees and Migrants, a much anticipated gathering that aims to get to the root of the global displacement crisis. As its title suggests, however, internally displaced people (IDPs) are not on the agenda.

This exclusion is a strategic mistake, and symptomatic of the ever-growing disparity between the scale of internal displacement worldwide and the lack of global focus on protecting and assisting IDPs. This stems in part from a global political and diplomatic environment that invokes sovereignty as immunity instead of responsibility.

The “end game” focus of the refugee crisis is a justifiable moral reaction to the throngs of people who have made long and dangerous journeys to seek safety on European shores, and to the sight of those who don’t quite make it being plucked – alive or dead – from the waters of the Mediterranean. If this outrage leads to new commitments to resettle more refugees, then so much the better. But as a worldview it is incredibly short-sighted.

Earlier this year, the UN secretary general’s own report, One Humanity, Shared Responsibility, proposed that governments commit to a comprehensive global plan to reduce the number of IDPs by at least 50 per cent by 2030. Echoing the Sustainable Development Agenda, his report made the commitment to “leave no one behind”.

To avoid the summit next week doing just that, the UN General Assembly should take up the secretary general’s call to protect and assist IDPs and to resolve their plight before they choose or are forced to flee across borders. The timing would be right as we look ahead to the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 2018.

Governments should also reaffirm their commitments, recognised by numerous UN resolutions since 1998, to collect and share reliable disaggregated data in order to improve policy, programming and responses to internal displacement. At a bare minimum, the international community must ensure that financial commitments made to migrants and refugees next week do not divert funding from efforts to respond to IDPs’ needs.

Refugee crises are, in large part, a symptom of the failure to protect and assist IDPs in their own country. Many if not most refugees do not cross a border at the first sign of war. They flee first inside their country, hoping for peace or aid that never comes. Only by understanding the roots of internal displacement and addressing its impacts can we start to tackle the global refugee crisis head-on, rather than scurrying to treat its symptoms.

Alexandra Bilak is the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)