Expert Opinion

2018: Time to reframe policy and practice on internal displacement

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On 4 April, the United Nations declared the end of the level-three emergency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The decision to downgrade the crisis from the highest state of humanitarian alert was made amid tense political positioning ahead of presidential elections due at the end of the year, ongoing conflict and violence, spiralling humanitarian needs and one of the world’s most acute internal displacement situations.

Beyond the immediate political questions that it raised, this move highlights a more persistent structural issue – our collective short-term approach to crises. Recently published figures show that humanitarian assistance is at an all-time high, partly to the detriment of long-term development investments. This has implications for the ability of governments and the humanitarian and development sectors to address barriers to stability, security and economic growth.

Internal displacement is one such barrier, but despite the ever-growing number of people affected worldwide, the phenomenon has been neglected. The collective political will required at the national, regional and global level to resolve displacement and reduce the risk of it occurring in the future has been notable by its absence.

On May 16, we will publish our annual flagship report, the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID). Our data shows that internal displacement associated with conflict rose sharply in 2017. The persistently high number of internally displaced people (IDPs) worldwide tells us that the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection is not, and never will be, enough to significantly reduce the phenomenon in the long-term.

This year’s GRID takes stock of efforts to do so in the 20 years since the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were adopted, and concludes that they have been only partially successful for three main reasons.

First, the adoption of laws and policies has not always led to successful implementation, much less positive outcomes for IDPs on the ground.

Second, the pace of implementation has in many cases been outstripped by the rate at which displacement occurs, particularly in areas with high disaster displacement risk or protracted conflicts.

Third, and arguably most importantly, policy frameworks and negotiations have been developed without sufficient buy-in from the countries most affected by internal displacement. Just a handful of countries, UN agencies and NGOs have engaged in sustained dialogue on the issue over the past two decades, often treating the perspectives of countries with large numbers of IDPs – and of displaced people themselves – as an afterthought.

This is an omission which must be addressed. To truly address internal displacement, the countries most affected must be in the driving seat. The rhetoric on displacement has to shift to acknowledge the full spectrum of issues it creates for individuals and for states. IDPs’ rights must continue to be at the centre of our thinking, but we should also recognise that displacement is more than a humanitarian issue, and that incorporating it into national budget, poverty reduction and disaster risk planning has significant benefits.

The stronger evidence base on the long-term impacts of internal displacement that I called for in my first letter of 2018 will be vital in explaining the incentives to reduce the phenomenon. This will require research to assess its true burden to local and national economies, the circumstances in which it leads to cross-border flight and the ways in which it plays into states’ security and political dynamics. Doing so will make the trade-offs inherent in the setting of national priorities and development and humanitarian budgeting clearer.

Demonstrating this will require better cooperation between organisations such IDMC and UN agencies that monitor and analyse data on the one hand, and governments that collect and provide information on displacement in their countries on the other.

Making a stronger case for the long-term benefits of reducing displacement and better data, however, will only go so far. We must also use the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles to reaffirm the central role of states with internal displacement issues in leading discussions and negotiations on reducing it. 

While the two global compacts on migration and refugees are being finalised, we must keep internal displacement high on the international agenda, recognising its position at the heart of the displacement continuum. We also need to ask what steps states and the international community can take in 2018 and beyond to achieve concrete, measurable outcomes in reducing internal displacement and future risk. This could include establishing new forums, beyond formal negotiations where positions tend to be fixed, for states and other stakeholders to share their lessons learned and generate new ideas for “breaking the impasse”.

This anniversary presents us with a unique opportunity to reflect on what has and has not worked in the past, and what we – states, international organisations, civil society, the private sector and academia – can do together to improve on these outcomes in the future.