An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who is forced to flee their home as a result of factors including conflict, violence or natural disasters but who remains, for whatever reason, within their country’s borders. This means that they are not classified as a refugee under international law and are therefore not protected by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (it is the crossing of borders that legally ‘creates’ refugees – you can read more about this in the entry on ‘Borders’). A legal protection framework for IDPs was only developed after the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis Deng, presented his ‘Guiding Principles’ on internal displacement to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1998. The number of IDPs had skyrocketed during this decade: whilst the first global IDP estimate (compiled in 1982) comprised 1.2 million people, by 1995 this number had risen to 20-25 million, almost twice the number of refugees.
The plight of IDPs raises important debates regarding the construction of categories used to explain forced migration. IDPs reveal the extent to which the lines drawn to separate ‘different’ groups of displaced persons have critical consequences regarding the level and type of protection each group receives. Both refugees and IDPs experience the perils of forced flight and both deserve to find a durable solution to displacement. Hence, many social scientists regard both groups as essentially similar victims – if the reality for refugees and IDPs is similar on the ground, why should IDPs receive different attention? In some cases, refugees become IDPS if they return to their home country under resettlement schemes yet are forced to move again after their return. The creation of separate categories for these groups might in this way be seen as arbitrary and unhelpful.
From another perspective, however, we might argue that refugees form a unique category – one that deserves to remain separate – because they cannot turn to their own government for protection and so require assistance from the international community. IDPs on the other hand remain under the jurisdiction of the state they are in and can technically appeal to this state for protection, making them slightly less vulnerable in the eyes of international law. In fact, some argue that by keeping the definition of IDPs separate from refugees, policymakers, lawyers and academics might be prompted to think about how internal displacement requires specialised solutions, something that would ultimately benefit IDPs.
These debates make us ask: just how much does the crossing (or not) of an international border shape both the experience and classification of forced migration?
Further Reading and Resources
You can read the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement here: https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/idpersons/pages/standards.aspx?fbclid=IwAR2US8CloFF1nlHhP2-i_3CPB_cV-2X9VeKBHY3s2Hv9rMuXvSl5fiJNLBM.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre produces highly informative articles and reports about IDPs which can be found in the ‘Resources’ section of their website: https://www.internal-displacement.org/internal-displacement.
David Turton wrote a working paper in 2003 for the Refugee Studies Centre on the issue of conceptualising forced migration, touching on the differentiation between refugees and IDPs: https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files-1/wp12-conceptualising-forced-migration-2003.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1bSGFFtJ4Iq3oyrStFcCzAMzhp8tm9cxctMLyK3dGykGdi7ysnEv69Two.
Phil Orchard has written a book entitled Protecting the Internally Displaced in which he looks at how the Guiding Principles, and the laws and policies based on them, are implemented at the domestic level in different countries, arguing that implementation remains haphazard and chaotic. See Orchard, P. (2018) Protecting the Internally Displaced: Rhetoric and Reality, Routledge.
You can also find a much shorter article by Orchard on this topic, written for the Forced Migration Review here: https://www.fmreview.org/GuidingPrinciples20/orchard.