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Dynamics of internal displacement

Dynamics of internal displacement

There are currently nearly 25 million people uprooted within their own country by conflicts and human rights violations, a number that has remained stable for several years during which some IDP situations have ended while others have begun or continued.

Regional overview of internal displacement:
Africa is the region/continent worst affected with more than 13 million IDPs. Rebel activities and inter-communal violence were key factors in the displacement of civilians; although in several countries government armies or proxy forces also forced people to flee. In Latin America, the bloody conflict in Colombia with its complex displacement patterns still accounted for nearly all new displacements. The region also continued to struggle to find durable solutions for people uprooted in conflicts that had long ended. In Peru and Guatemala, the return and reintegration of the displaced was agreed in the mid-1990s, but these agreements have never been fully implemented.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that, by the end of 2004, some 3,3 million people were displaced within Asia-Pacific region due to conflicts. In addition come the approximately 1,2 million people displaced by the tsunami disaster in December 2004, and the large number of people displaced by development projects. From 4,6 million two years ago, the number of IDPs has decreased by nearly 30 percent in the region. The intensification of ongoing conflicts opposing governments and rebel movements has been the main cause of new displacement during 2004.
In Europe, the number of internally displaced has decreased steadily during the last years, but there are still 3 million IDPs, most of them in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and the majority displaced for many years. In 2003, the Russian Federation (Chechnya) was the only country in Europe were people were still at risk of being forcibly displaced by ongoing fighting in 2003.
About half of the 2.1 million IDPs from the Middle East - in Israel, Syria and Lebanon - have been displaced for two decades or longer. The largest group of IDPs in this region live in Iraq. Conflict and instability continue to generate internal displacement in Iraq.
Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) 2004, 2005a (


Causes of conflict-induced displacement can be divided into root causes and proximate causes. Root causes are those which initiate a conflict and its displacement, although these can be hard to isolate as most of todays conflicts must be understood as self-perpetuating and their resulting displacement can be seen not only as an effect of the conflict but also eventually as a cause of its continuation.

There is a considerable body of knowledge about the root causes of displacement. We know for instance that very few internally displaced are uprooted by inter-state conflicts. Most conflicts causing internal displacement are a combination of internal fighting and direct foreign military intervention, most often linked to civil war (IDMC 2005a). The causes are fuelled by deep structural problems, often rooted in acute racial, ethnic, religious and/or cultural cleavages as well as gross inequities within a country. During the Cold War, these differences, tensions, oppressions and repressions were often supported by the control mechanisms behind the two superpowers. The end of the Cold War removed these external interests and resulted in the intensification of many internal conflicts and related displacement flows (Deng 2003).

There is surprisingly little systematic research on the proximate or immediate triggering causes of displacement and on how different causes converge to necessitate people to move. Such information is mainly garnered from personal accounts in ethnographic studies. An exception is the work of Birkeland (2003 a, b) which concludes that displacement in the Angolan highland region of Huambo is triggered by the deterioration of land and restricted access to food and other necessities caused by war, rather than by the war itself. The study shows how analysis of the true complexity of displacement can result in a deeper understanding of proximate causes and potentially contribute to improved assistance and even an end to displacement.

Internal displacement and the international migration regime

The reasons why people forced to flee remain within the borders of their country are many and various. Safe travel all the way to a border may not be possible, or factors such as age, disability, and health may impede their transit (Mooney 2003a). Restrictions on travel and the right to seek asylum may also be imposed by external countries. These are among the many global issues that must be taken into account when exploring the nature of internal displacement.

The number of refugees in the world is currently lower than it has been in many years, but this does not mean that the number of forced migrants has declined. During the 1990s it was estimated that up to 12 million refugees had returned to their countries of origin (Koser and Black 1999), but many returnee populations remained displaced within their country upon return.. This was, for example, the case with the return of most Kurdish refugees to northern Iraq after the Gulf War. (Dubernet 2001).

During the 1990s, stricter immigration policies in the Western world, together with the growing scale of the refugee problem and the changing nature of the international and political order, encouraged a new approach for dealing with forced migration advocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (Ogata 1995). This new approach emphasised preventive protection and focused less exclusively on the situation of refugees in countries of asylum and more systematically on the situation of vulnerable populations in countries of origin (Barutciski 1996, Duffield 1997, UNHCR 1997). The preventive protection approach is thus more concerned with the root causes of forced migration and with preventing refugee flows by protecting and assisting people before they are forced to cross a border (Ogata 1993) in other words emphases on the right to leave and the right to seek and enjoy asylum have been replaced by the right to remain (Hyndman 1999, Ogata 1993). Many consider the establishment by US and European troops of safe havens for internally displaced Kurds in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf crisis as a turning point marking a new willingness among the international community to intervene on behalf of the internally displaced (Hyndman 2000, Van Hear 1993).

The right to remain has been a disputed policy, as it touches on sensitive political considerations - in particular the principle of sovereignty. The idea that outsiders should not intervene in the internal affairs of a country had been pivotal to the international communitys approach to dealing with IDPs. In the post-Cold War period, formal sovereignty has been upheld, but has been reshaped to create the space for external involvement. This change in the way sovereignty is understood is based on the view that international involvement becomes essential and legitimate when a humanitarian crisis is caused by a governments failure to fulfil its responsibility to its citizens (Cohen and Deng 1998a, Martin 2000).

The right to remain strategy is also problematised by the fact that in situations of civil war, many internally displaced find themselves within the war zone, often in great danger and with little possibility of being reached by aid agencies. This situation has led some policy analysts to contend that the right to remain policy violates the right to leave ones country and to seek asylum as outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Hyndman 2003).

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Last updated Aug 17, 2011