When we say “internally displaced” we mean people who are forced to flee their homes, but do not cross an international border. This distinguishes “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, from those would be considered international refugees. This distinction is significant because, while there is a robust international law obligating governments to treat international refugees in a certain way, there is not much that international law or norms governing internal displacement.
My guest today, Alexadra Bilak, is director of the Internal displacement Monitoring Center which just released its flagship report on global displacement. In our conversation, Alexandra Bilak describes the drivers and trends in internal displacement and also explains why cities are becoming a major focal point for interventions to support potentially vulnerable people who are internally displaced.
When policy makers reference the “global refugee crisis” that has caused over 65 million people displaced around the world, they often lump together IDPs and refugees, of which there are over 40 million and 25 million, respectively. This conversation focuses on that former figure–over 40 million IDPs to explain the unique challenges facing people who are internally displaced.
This year’s report reveals shocking findings. It shows the highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) by conflict and violence across the world. Further, this number is growing in scale and is a complex phenomenon. It is not receiving the attention it deserves.
What is driving the rise of conflict related IDPs?
The highest levels of internal displacement are found in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Ethiopia erupted into communal and ethnic violence two years ago has continued to generate high levels of internal displacement in certain pockets of the country, with 2.9 million new movements recorded throughout 2018. Other countries including Nigeria, DRC, South Sudan, CAR, and Somalia remain high on the list of concern. The DRC has continued with cyclical waves of armed violence with has made it one of the country’s worst affected in 2018. Further, the Middle East continues to be one of the regions most affected. The highest levels of internal displacement were amongst cities across Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Displacement in urban areas is a high focus in this year’s report.
The reality of urban warfare is prevalent here. Cities are targeted and bombed so the levels of destruction are particularly high. The triggers of displacement and the kinds of violent events that cause people to leave their homes is a serious reality. Moreover, there are repeated patterns of displacement. People may flee to the city from a rural area and then have to flee again. Cities are places where people flee to, because they see it as somewhere they will find opportunities for better livelihoods. In the case of the Middle East, you are looking at physical threats to safety and security. In other places like Asia, urban population density and other forms of natural hazards accumulate in cities, so then cities can generate displacement.
The majority of the disaster related displacements were weather related. This displacement can be linked to floods, typhoons, storms, cyclones, hurricanes, and to a lesser extent, drought, extreme temperatures, and landslides. The countries most exposed to these hazards are predominantly in Asia, South East Asia and South Asia. The countries worst affected in 2018 were the Philippines, China, and India. The effects of climate change impact high income and low income governments. An interesting finding is that the U.S. was responsible for 1.2 million IDPs, particularly due to wildfires in California. As a result, governments often have to evacuate their populations which is a form of displacement.
The data you are collecting serves as an interesting index and tool to measure the impact of climate disaster.
The data is not yet historically sufficient to be able to draw definitive trends, but it does show the risk of someone becoming displaced by a disaster has increased over the last forty years and will continue to do so as climate becomes more extreme and the impacts more severe. This is a call for much more investment on the preparedness side, on the disaster risk reduction side, and on the climate change adaptation side.
How did you collect the data for this report?
The IDMC’s role is to examine already existing data. The type of data can vary hugely from humanitarian data to government data. Further, this could include a civil society report or media report. In other contexts, satellite images or mobile phone data may be used. All the data available is analyzed and the best estimate is derived.
What is the purpose of creating a dataset like this?
Internal displacement is an issue that cuts across so many other global challenges from climate change to state building to sustainable development to urban planning. Given how important the issue is globally, it is important for governments to track their progress. Additionally, they can then evaluate the extent to which internal displacement may be hampering their commitments and objectives under other frameworks.
The international community does not have the same obligations to IDPs as it does to international refugees.
First of all, in terms of the scale, publishing this data on a regular basis is a strong reminder that there is a huge part of the migration picture that is consistently missing from the debate. There are more IDPs than refugees in the world right now, so it is important to reiterate this issue to the international community. However, this is not to say that when a refugee crosses a border they will be automatically be picked up by UNHCR or another agency. There are huge vulnerabilities when it comes to refugees and migrants, but certainly the levels of severity are also extremely high in an IDP context.
The report this year focuses on cities and municipalities. Can you discuss an example of authorities approaching this problem in a useful way?
Rebuilding a city to allow citizens to return in a short period of time, reintegrate, and rebuild a community is a massive investment. This process of rebuilding and reintegrating is far more challenging in more fragile countries with less resources. The example of Mozambique and Cyclone Idaisprings to mind.
Solutions are linked to the issue of housing and employment. IDPs need access to quality and affordable housing. Further, they need employment opportunities so they have the income to rent said housing. There are examples, such as the Ukraine, where they have allowed IDPs to move from an informal situation to a formal process of land or apartment ownership. This encourages municipalities and countries to consider local integration as a solution to displacement as much as return, because in some cases return is not an option.