Dr. Vickie Frater and Dr. Phil Orchard
Aid Distribution in Mayfa’a, Shabwah, Yemen on 4 Nov 2015. Courtesy UNHCR
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a Geneva-based NGO supported by a number of governments and the Norwegian Refugee Council, has released its annual Global Report on Internal Displacement or GRID. Driven by the conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq, the numbers of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, climbed by 4.5 million in 2013 and 5 million in 2014. This meant there was a global total of 38 million IDPs at the end of 2014.
Unfortunately, this pattern is continuing, though it has started to slow down. IDMC reports that overall IDPs globally increased by 2.8 million in 2015, reaching a total of 40.8 million. This includes 8.6 million new displacements, offset by around 5.8 million returns. Ten countries alone account for almost three-quarters of the total, producing some 30 million IDPs. Of these ten, four (Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan) have remained amongst the top ten IDP producing states since 2003. A further five -Nigeria, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen- have been producing significant IDPs over the past five years.
What’s driving this inexorable rise? Part of the issue is the rise in conflict, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, a region the IDMC argues has been ‘snowballing’ since the Arab Spring in 2010/2011. Indeed, Yemen, Syria and Iraq alone account for over half the global total for new displacements, with Yemen taking the top spot for new displacements in 2015, with a total of 2,175,000. This represents a 20-fold increase on IDP totals reported in 2014 and is largely due to Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi insurgency. IDMC notes that in Yemen, the “humanitarian and protection needs among IDPs and the rest of the civilian population are acute, and neither the national nor international response have gone far enough in addressing them.”
In Syria, the IDMC now estimates that there are 6.6 million IDPs, or 40 per cent of the remaining Syrian population. But the Syrian case in particular also shows the limitations of data collection during active conflicts. As IDMC noted in a December 2015 report, “data gathering in Syria has also been consistently complicated by the inability to access to certain areas, including besieged cities… IDMC’s displacement figures are also qualified by the fact that the sources cited above have used different methodologies to estimate the number of IDPs in various locations… Monitoring of internal displacement in Syria has been further hampered by the volatility of the frontlines and the intensity of the conflict.”
Another critical issue the report points to is that the steady increase in IDP figures reflects the fact that most IDPs have not found durable solutions, even with many having been displaced for years if not decades. Counting IDPs is an especially difficult exercise of population measurement and measuring the end of displacement is proving to be one of the hardest yardsticks to define and apply to these complex crises.
With IDPs – as opposed to with refugees – there is no clear end point when displacement ends. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the main soft law framework for the protection of the internally displaced, notes only that internal displacement “shall last no longer than required by the circumstance.” While a 2007 UN report proposes that IDP “durable solutions” should include three elements – “long-term safety and security, restitution of or compensation for lost property and an environment that sustains the life of the former IDPs under normal economic and social conditions”- this has yet to be widely accepted and solutions remain elusive.
This has also meant that there is an increasing prevalence of protracted, or long-term, displacement. When IDMC first began collecting data eighteen years ago in 1998, protracted cases such as Colombia, Algeria and Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) seemed exceptional.
And yet, in each of these cases IDP populations have persisted, even as newer cases join them. In Colombia, peace negotiations continue to stall, while in Azerbaijan and Armenia not only does a long term peace agreement remain non-existent but since April the dormant conflict has threatened to restart. This is not all bad news- over the past few years, IDMC has indicated that both states seemed to show signs of accepting a responsibility to adequately measure and respond to the needs of IDP populations.
Finally, within the report the IDMC has also sought to explore other causes of displacement beyond conflicts. This includes natural disasters, which created 19.2 million disaster-induced IDPs in 2015. These disasters affected 113 countries, more than twice the number of those affected by conflict and violence. India, China, and Nepal had the highest figures, with 3.7 million, 3.6 million, and 2.6 million disaster-induced IDPs respectively.
While victims of natural disasters tend to be able to return quickly to their homes, this is not always the case. In Japan, tens of thousands of people remained displaced from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Haiti, at least 62,000 people still remained displaced following the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake. The IDMC is raising similar concerns in Nepal following the April and May 2015 earthquakes. They argue that “political instability and weak institutions have… hampered the humanitarian response.”
Overall, then, the picture is mixed. While the growth rate in the number of IDPs is slowing, new conflicts continue to generate significant numbers of IDPs, even as groups in Syria and other states remain displaced for years in protracted situations. This points directly to the need for the international community to continue and to improve its provision of protection and assistance to the internally displaced.
Vickie Frater is a Project Officer with the APR2P, and recently completed her PhD examining questions of legality and legitimacy around the use of force.
Phil Orchard is the Research Director of the APR2P and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. He tweets @p_orchard.