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Getting to the heart of the global displacement crisis

by Alexandra Bilak | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Wednesday, 16 May 2018 05:00 GMT

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

Until preventing and resolving displacement is included in national and global priorities, the figures will continue to rise each year

The first several weeks of 2017 marked an ominous start, setting the tone for another record-breaking year of displacement. While much of the world welcomed in a fresh start and fixed resolutions for the new year, more than 13,000 people in Mosul fled the relentless armed clashes that had, for months, plagued the city. The dangerous escape of these men, women and children was a precursor to 1.3 million new displacements that the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) recorded in Iraq during the year.

In total, 11.8 million people were forced to flee their homes during 2017 due to conflict and violence. This is the equivalent of every family in Paris deserting the city over a period of twelve months, many at a moment’s notice and saving only whatever belongings they could carry. These were the highest levels of new conflict displacement IDMC has monitored in more than a decade.

Those millions uprooted, some for the first time, some for another time, joined the ranks of the global total of internally displaced people, or IDPs. By the end of 2017, 40 million people were living in internal displacement caused by conflict and violence, many for years or even decades. The root causes of their flight were often the same that sparked, or at least contributed to, the violence they managed to escape. Political instability, unresolved conflicts, scarcity of resources, the effects of climate change and weak governance are all both catalysts for and obstacles to resolving displacement.

Complex emergencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and South Sudan shed light on this conundrum. All three crises have endured brutal and cyclical violence, a breakdown in governance and the rule of law, chronic food insecurity and severely restricted humanitarian access. These same factors not only obstruct efforts to rebuild the lives of those affected, but without long-term commitment to tackling these drivers of displacement, there can be little hope of achieving sustainable peace.

Even without clear prospects of a stable future, many people nonetheless returned, or were returned to, countries still grappling with ongoing warfare, taking on a real risk of going back to a situation of displacement within their country’s borders. An unprecedented number of people went back to Syria and Iraq in 2017, in many cases to unsafe and unsustainable conditions. In Afghanistan – reclassified during the year from post- to active-conflict – more than 560,000 refugees returned from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, likely adding to the hundreds of thousands of new displacements within the country. With ongoing insecurity and a struggling economy, it will be difficult for Afghanistan to reintegrate these returnees sustainably.

Against the backdrop of these complicated patterns of human mobility, getting a complete and accurate picture of displacement is challenging. Lack of access affects data collection, and means that even these unforgivably high global figures are likely underestimates. In Yemen, widely regarded as the world’s most acute humanitarian crisis, IDMC captured relatively low levels of new displacement: 160,000 throughout the course of the year, as compared with 2.2 million just two years ago. While some of this sharp decrease reflected changing dynamics on the ground, sustained air and ground warfare also left many out of reach of data collectors and, even more importantly, life-saving aid.

Attempts to break these relentless cycles of displacement must start with reliable and timely data. The international humanitarian system cannot deliver life-saving assistance and protection to people fleeing violence without having access to and knowing who they are, where they are, and what they need.

That said, we must move beyond addressing displacement as a purely humanitarian issue. We will only start getting to the heart of the global IDP and refugee crisis by understanding and tackling its root causes, through coordinated commitments to peacebuilding, sustainable development, and conflict resolution. Until preventing and resolving displacement is included in national and global priorities seeking to address these issues, the figures will continue to rise each year.

Alexandra Bilak, Director, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the leading source of information and analysis on internal displacement around the world.