Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

OPINION: What lockdown looks like when you can't get home: displaced communities and COVID-19

by Katie Peters | @katiepetersodi | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 8 May 2020 11:21 GMT

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

Asia-Pacific is grappling with the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic for disaster-displaced communities

For thousands of people displaced by hazardous events over the past weeks and months, the idea of staying at home to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 is extremely problematic, because they are not living at home.

Displacement as a result of a natural hazards is commonplace among communities in Asia-Pacific, even though in many contexts, displacement is entirely preventable. Of the 9.3 million people displaced by natural hazards across East Asia and the Pacific in 2018, many will not have yet returned home, and remain in temporary accommodation. For some, return may still be a long way off.

The specific numbers of people displaced, and how protracted their displacement experience is likely to be, are relatively unknown. Data gaps mask the scale of the displacement challenge and longitudinal data which can help to reveal trends in displacement over time, are lacking. 

But what if the measures being put in place by governments in an effort to limit the transmission of COVID-19 are disproportionately hampering your ability to return to home and your livelihood prior to being displaced? Or worse still, rendering you exposed to stigma and deprivation.

This is happening in a number of contexts across the world right now, where lockdowns enforced in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps are inhibiting people’s ability to transition back home or resettle permanently in a new location. Displaced people can also find themselves ineligible for local healthcare services, including COVID-19 testing and treatment.  

The pandemic helps shine a spotlight on misunderstandings of protracted and multiple disaster displacements. For example, the idea that displacement is singular, temporary or that people want and are able to return home.


The complexity of situations of protracted and multiple displacements, and the reasons why individuals are at risk of displacement, vary vastly. Underlying risk drivers can include unplanned urbanisation, land mismanagement, poverty and inequality, and climate variability and change.

For example, decades of conflict have undermined irrigation systems in Afghanistan, exacerbating the impact of drought-related displacement, and unresolved land and property rights in Timor-Leste are complicating disaster preparedness amid pre-existing conflict-related internal displacement.

Social and economic inequalities and power dynamics also shape patterns of marginalisation within societies, and produce heightened displacement risk. It is these vulnerabilities that can result in displaced families living in crowded temporary accommodation, making it impossible to take preventative measures for COVID-19 if symptoms occur, such as self-isolation.

While dealing with hazard-related disaster risk is traditionally the domain of national disaster management authorities - and great progress has been made to reduce exposure and vulnerability and help people remain in-situ - on balance, interventions designed to prevent disaster displacement are not sufficient to curb current trends.

In some cases, there is simply not the political will to tackle highly political drivers of displacement risk, such as housing, land and properly rights, or the discrimination of socially excluded groups. In others, addressing the multifaceted causes and consequences of multiple and protracted displacement requires action by other government branches such as human rights commissions, or land title and registrations.

COVID-19 is amplifying the challenge of dealing with multiple and protracted disaster displacement in crisis contexts. The conflict-displaced Rohingya have been at risk of flooding in Bangladeshi camps, and now under COVID-19 lock-down, have their freedom of movement restricted. As is the case for many displaced populations, access to information is limited. Government restrictions on phone and internet access in the Rohingya camps have quashed people’s ability to access to information about the pandemic, and misinformation is rife.

In the margins of the commentary about COVID-19 and of disaster risk management, there are calls for greater attention to disaster displaced people and their families. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons called on governments to uphold their responsibility to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

To be effective, responses to COVID-19 cannot be disconnected from responses to protracted and multiple displacement risk. And as with most responses to people in crisis, displaced populations do not need to be the subject of new measures, but to be involved in decision-making processes about what support and services are required to enable them to uphold their livelihoods, dignity and wellbeing when faced with multiple threats.