Internally Displaced Persons

Lidia Kuzemska

Who is an ‘Internally Displaced Person’? (IDP)

Potentially anyone who is forced to leave one’s permanent home. The homeless, people evicted from their houses, people forced to relocate within their communities, within their cities or countries. A narrower, legal understanding of the term refers specifically to those displaced by conflict, violence, human rights violations, or disasters within the borders of their country. 

Unlike people who move within the country voluntarily for work, education, or other reasons and can return to their homes, IDPs are usually forced to leave their homes by an external threat. It is also more common that this form of displacement happens in larger groups rather than originating with smaller, individual decisions to move. Moreover, internal displacement is often associated with the loss of or damage to property and an inability to return home for various periods of time, sometimes even decades. 

Countries can choose whether to introduce a special legal status of an ‘IDP’ that will give a person additional protection status and rights, to focus on specific vulnerable groups among the displaced that need additional protection, or to make no distinction between the displaced and other citizens. The needs and rights of specific IDPs groups – women and girlschildren in displacementpeople with disabilitiesLGBTQ+indigenous people – are gaining increasing attention. 

Who is responsible for helping IDPs?

Taking a quick look at Flickr’s results for ‘Internally Displaced Persons’, you would see images of camps, children playing in-between tents, makeshift beds and water containers. It is not surprising that IDPs look very much like refugees. There are two important differences between IDPs and refugees. First, IDPs are displaced within their own country, whereas refugees flee from their countries abroad. Consequently, the second distinction is that the responsibility to protect IDPs lies on the governments of their own countries, whereas the protection of asylum seekers and refugees lies within the international community. As a result, if the IDPs’ own government is unwilling or unable to take care of them, there are limits to what the international community can do to protect their rights. It is even more difficult if the government itself provoked the displacement (e.g., in cases of ethnic cleansings against minorities or because of big infrastructure projects when the country might not allow international organisations to intervene at all). 

How are states then held accountable for securing the rights of IDPs? The United Nations proposed to reinstate that IDPs are already rightful citizens of their countries and subject to international humanitarian law. Combined, the 30 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement became a roadmap for the state prevention of forced displacement and protection of IDPs. These principles are not legally binding, so states are encouraged and lobbied to implement them, but are not strictly held accountable by the international community if they do not. Research demonstrates that regional agreements on the protection of IDPs are more effective than global ones. For instance, the African Union adopted the Kampala Convention in 2009, signed by 55 countries and ratified by 31. 

Today’s IDPs can become tomorrow’s refugees, so it makes sense to support and protect them in their home country. In 2019, 57 countries appealed to the UN Secretary-General to coordinate a holistic response and share best practices to achieve durable solutions. The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement has just published a report outlining the next steps.

How many IDPs are in the world?

In 2020, from the overall 82.4 million forcefully displaced persons registered by UNHCR, 48 million were IDPs displaced by conflict in 59 countries and 3.2 million were returnee-IDPs (those who suffer secondary internal displacement upon return). The same year the number of disaster-related IDPs across 103 countries and territories rose to 7 million people. The IDP population has grown over the last decades – for instance, conflict-induced displacement doubled in the last ten years alone. Colombia (8.3 million), Syria (6.7 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (5.2 million), Yemen (4 million) and Somalia (3 million) had the highest numbers of IDPs displaced by conflict and violence. In 2021, we watch the developments in Afghanistan, where a previous 2.9 million IDPs were joined by another 338,000 people displaced during the first six months of the year, and 194,000 more in July alone, causing great concern about the humanitarian situation. 

Climate change could force 216 million people to move internally within the next three decades. 263 million new displacements were registered over the last ten years in more than nine thousand events, predominantly floods and storms. Most people returned after the weather conditions improved which is why the stock of disaster-related displacement is at 7 million people in 2021. However, concerns about the scale of climate-related displacement are rising. This year we have already seen massive displacements caused by floods in Indonesia and China; wildfires in North America and Europe; drought in Africa; and hurricanes on the Atlantic coast. 

If you want to dive deeper into displacement figures by regions, country and type, you can use this map from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. 

When do you stop being an IDP?

Policymakers’ debates about when internal displacement ends have three non-exclusive views. First, internal displacement ends when the cause of it no longer exists (e.g., end of conflict or rebuilding after disaster). Second, internal displacement ends if the displaced people achieved durable solutions for their needs by either returning home, resettling elsewhere in the country or by integrating into their new host community. Third, internal displacement ends when its consequences do not put IDPs in a worse situation than the rest of the population. However, this interpretation can be problematic because attaining equity with people around does not mean that all needs of IDPs are met. The exact constellation of how to choose and evaluate the criteria for an end to internal displacement should consider local context and the views of IDPs and should involve other local actors. 

Further reading and resources:


Dr Lidia Kuzemska is a sociologist studying processes of everyday bordering and citizenship practices in contexts of forced migration. She holds a PhD from Lancaster University and MA in European Studies from the College of Europe. Lidia is also the co-managing editor of the Refugee Review journal. Get in touch: E-mail | Twitter LinkedIn | Lancaster University Profile


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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