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Displacement during the Trump era: 4 priorities for policy-makers

by Alexandra Bilak | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Thursday, 17 November 2016 21:44 GMT

A woman who fled from Mosul carries her son Riyad, 1, who was born under Islamic State rule and has no identity documents recognised by Iraqi authorities, in Debaga refugee camp, Iraq November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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

Trump's policies could increase displacement from Central America, the Middle East - and climate change

It has now been a little over a week since Donald Trump captured the White House, a result that many headlines around the world have described as a “political earthquake”. Having absorbed the initial surprise, many individuals and organizations, including the team here at Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), are now looking to recalibrate their role in relation to a Trump administration.

IDMC is recognized as a leading source of information and analysis on internal displacement worldwide, a role recognised and endorsed by the UN General Assembly since our establishment in 1998. Building on this foundation of expertise, we want to help aid agencies and policy-makers anticipate and navigate displacement during the next four years of the Trump administration, along the lines of four priorities:

Responding to the displacement crisis in Central America and Mexico

This is the issue literally closest to home for U.S. policy-makers. The number of people fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has surged to levels unseen since the end of the armed conflicts that devastated the region in the 1980s.

Criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity had displaced at least a million people in the NTCA and neighboring Mexico as of December 2015. Actual figures are likely much higher, as this type of flight tends to remain hidden and unquantified.

Thousands of people, including unaccompanied minors, have been unable to find a safe place in their own countries, left with no choice but to undertake dangerous journeys to neighboring states or onward to the US – nearly always as a last resort.

With the aim of intercepting people trying to enter the United States irregularly, Trump ran his campaign on a promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico (or according to more recent rumours, a fence). This week, he committed to deporting or jailing up to three million undocumented immigrants, many back to places where violence, and no doubt more displacement, await them.

What we have observed thus far, here and in other similar situations, is that policies failing to tackle the root causes of displacement and instead concentrating efforts on deportation and restricting people’s access to safety will not solve the problem. Instead, they just shift the burden onto others. Whether the wall is fortified, a fence, or metaphorical, one thing is clear: the chances of many Central Americans securing a desperately needed safe haven in the US just dropped.

Improving evidence on the cross-border displacement of IDPs from the Middle East

An estimated 65 million people were displaced by conflict and violence by the end of 2015, two-thirds of whom were internally displaced persons (IDPs). Displacement in the Middle East in particular has snowballed since the Arab spring uprisings in 2010 and the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

There were nearly 4.8 million new internal displacements in the region during 2015, significantly more than in all other regions of the world combined. Yemen, Syria and Iraq accounted for over half of the global total, and the number of people displaced there has in 2016 continued to rise without signs of slowing. It seems that not a day goes by without hearing of families perishing on land or at sea while seeking to escape war and persecution in these countries.

It is against the backdrop of this nightmare that president-elect Trump has vowed to restrict refugee intakes from the Middle East and has contended that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, a proposal he later reworded as a call for a limit on immigration from “terror-prone regions”. 

Extreme vetting” will likely hinge on racial profiling and put the most vulnerable at risk as they seek safety. The current refugee influx from the Middle East and indeed globally is, in part, a symptom of the failure to protect and assist internally displaced people in their own country.

However, with borders closing up and refugee resettlement numbers looking set to fall in the United States, people fleeing conflict and violence will increasingly find themselves trapped inside their own country as IDPs in dire need.

Preparing for displacement due to climate change

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that “climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people” and that “changes in the incidence of extreme events will amplify the challenges and risks of such displacement”.

With global temperatures breaking new records and an average of at least 21.5 million people already being displaced each year by the impact and threat of climate-related hazards, now is the time to ratchet up efforts to mitigate climate change, and simultaneously act to reduce and prepare for ever greater displacement risk through effective adaptation.

Instead, president-elect Trump is reported to be seeking the quickest way to pull out of the landmark Paris agreement, a climate change accord agreed by nearly 200 countries in December 2015 and which came into force four days before the US elections.

The effect of a U.S. exit from the agreement could be substantial, since a large percentage of the full emissions cuts anticipated by the Paris agreement hinge on the United State’s promise to take domestic action and provide funding. Moreover, if the United States disregards its obligations and commitments, there is a significant risk that other countries may follow suit.

Despite the record warm years we have observed, the future climate looks even more bleak. Unfortunately, the inertia and delays built into the climate system mean two things: the longer we wait to act, the more dire the consequences will be; and the worst impacts will not be felt until long after president-elect Trump has left office.

Building the evidence base for cost-effective action

IDMC has been documenting an increase in internal displacement since our establishment in 1998. There were 27.8 million new displacements associated with conflict, violence and disasters in 127 countries during 2015, more than the total populations of New York City, London, Paris and Cairo combined.

In the face of mounting needs, donors and aid agencies have created strategies such as the “Grand Bargain” to make emergency aid finance more efficient and effective.

Under a Trump administration, we should prepare for a possible drop in humanitarian funding, though there is strong bi-partisan support in the U.S, Congress for such funding. His pledges throughout his campaign to “make America great again” imply a domestic focus for his initial budgets.

The impact of a reduction in emergency aid will strongly impact the capacity of humanitarian actors to deliver in critical contexts such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen and Palestine. This means that whatever financing is available must go to the right places, and donors and aid agencies will need help in determining where they can get the most bang for their buck to protect and assist those in need.

If we have learned anything from the recent U.S. elections, it is to expect the unexpected from a Trump administration. We at IDMC are standing by to offer support, guidance and analytical tools for informed policy decisions on preventing and responding to the issues outlined above.  To be clear, these four policy priorities are not new; they just became unmistakably more urgent.

Alexandra Bilak is director of the International Displacement Monitoring Centre.