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Why we need to put internal displacement back on the global agenda

by Alexandra Bilak | International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Monday, 22 May 2017 09:58 GMT

A displaced Iraqi girl, who fled a village controlled by Islamic State militants, poses for a picture at the refugee camp in Hammam Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

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

Preventing and resolving internal displacement is both a national obligation and a global imperative

While politicians, the media and the general public have been fixated – with good reason – on the fate of refugees and migrants worldwide, another massive and largely neglected crisis has continued unabated behind many countries’ borders. In 2016, IDMC recorded 31.1 million new cases of people becoming displaced internally because of conflict, violence or disasters. This figure, published this week in our 2017 global report on internal displacement, is the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second.

Of the 65.3 million people now displaced by conflict and violence in the world, two thirds of them are displaced internally. The fate of these people lies in the hands of their governments, some of whom are unwilling or unable to assist and protect them. Internal displacement is a crisis of enormous proportions that the world has effectively sidelined- which is a short-sighted failure that highlights a lack of solidarity and empathy, but also impacts the way we are responding to the global refugee crisis.More broadly, it shows just how far we are from meeting our collective targets as a global community.

Why should the world care about internal displacement?

Member States’ commitment to “leave no-one behind” is at the heart of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognizes that the Agenda’s targets should be met for all people, especially the most vulnerable and furthest behind. It warns that the persistent presence of displaced people on a country’s territory will, over time, slow down the development of the communities that host them and of societies as a whole. If we don’t change the way we look at internal displacement, and invest more effort in preventing and resolving it, the target to reduce the numbers living in displacement by 2030 will only be remembered as a missed opportunity. If we don’t turn this tide, displacement will continue increasing in the future.

A better understanding of internal displacement is key to shaping preparedness and response efforts during all phases of displacement, regardless of whether or not a person crosses an international border. We know there is a link between internal displacement and cross-border movement: six of the ten countries that produced most refugees in 2016 - Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria - were also among the ten with the largest numbers of IDPs.

Syria is a poignant example of the connection between human suffering inside national borders and exodus abroad: in a country devastated by more than six years of violent civil war, families have been reported moving up to 25 times before leaving the country in a desperate search for safety, and becoming refugees, asylum seekers and international migrants.

Despite some piecemeal evidence, we still don’t know how many of today’s internally displaced people are likely to become tomorrow’s refugees, and at what point during a displacement crisis this transition is most likely to happen.. It is important to understand how many, when and why IDPs cross borders, as well as whether returning refugees risk becoming internally displaced too, especially when the conditions they return to are the same as those that forced them to flee in the first place. This evidence would be crucial for effective policy and operational responses, and for better protection, along the entire displacement trajectory.

Getting to the root of the problem

How can we tackle internal displacement when, ultimately, it takes place within the borders of a sovereign country, and comes with a minefield of political sensitivities? While we need to prevent and mitigate the main triggers of displacement - conflict, violence and disasters - we also need to address their underlying drivers - namely poverty and inequality, fragile and weak governance, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change.

Figures show that the total number of people living in internal displacement has been on a constant and steady rise: 40.3 million people were living in internal displacement caused by conflict and violence at the end of 2016, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000. This means that each year, new displacement adds to already significant caseloads of IDPs, and ends up lasting far longer than it should as humanitarian assistance tapers off and governments struggle to respond with adequate assistance. displacement. Indeed most internal displacement happens in low and lower-income countries, with governments and national institutions weakened by decades of crisis, and hit by multiple and repeated shocks along the way. In the face of many competing priorities, they are often unable to respond to the many and complex needs of IDPs.

Many more political and financial resources need to be invested in conflict prevention, disaster risk management, state- and peace-building and diplomacy. There needs to be a fundamental shift away from meeting immediate needs to reducing vulnerability and future risk. In 2016, spending on refugee resettlement within donor countries surpassed humanitarian financing for other countries for the first time. This growing share of assistance spent within donor countries means that not enough is spent on countries were the crises originate and where we see high levels of internal displacement.

Finally, countries need to be reminded that reliable and timely data and analysis is the bedrock of any effective response to displacement. States are not investing sufficiently in the collection and publication of credible data on internal displacement, which severely limits their capacity to address IDPs’ needs, and our ability to paint a comprehensive picture of internal displacement worldwide. If governments are serious about improving the many millions of lives blighted by internal displacement and preventing others from suffering the same upheaval and trauma in the future, they need to recognize that with sovereignty comes responsibility, and that preventing and resolving internal displacement is both a national obligation and a global imperative.

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