IDPs in Minkamman site, South Sudan.
Photo: NRC/Christian Jepsen
I should have been in my second year of high school in 1995. Instead, I tried to walk across the border to Greece for the third time that year. This time, my parents weren’t angry; they were resigned to the fact that I was determined to leave Albania, my country of birth. Eighteen months after I finally made it to Greece, with no legal status, Albania descended into near civil war, a clear result of years of bad governance.
In 1999, during a brief return to Albania, I met Kosovan refugees who had been internally displaced for months due to Serb army and paramilitary attacks. They had eventually sought refuge from the violence by walking to Albania. Years later, I witnessed and heard about similar experiences in Central Africa, where I worked on documenting the lives of rebel groups.
Like the Kosovan refugees and the families I interviewed in Central Africa, many people who flee their homes due to conflict or disasters first become displaced in their own countries before ultimately being forced to seek safety across borders, thereby becoming refugees, often after long and arduous voyages.
Despite this inextricable link between internal displacement and refugee flows, policymakers tend to focus mainly ─ albeit inadequately – on refugee issues while the plight of internally displaced people (IDPs) remains largely neglected.
At policy level, viewing internal displacement and trans-border displacement as separate issues is shortsighted. IDPs have lost their homes, livelihoods, and sometimes their families and friends to the same violence or disaster experienced by those who flee abroad. Furthermore, it is often because of a lack of assistance and basic services in their home countries that many risk their lives by embarking on perilous journeys across dangerous borders and rough seas.
Turning a blind eye to internal displacement constitutes a failure to understand the causes of refugee flows and most likely results in an inevitable failure to adequately address refugees’ most fundamental problems. We cannot limit whom we help based on lines on a map. “Leaving no one behind” was a universal pledge enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Agenda for Humanity. But there can be no sustainable development if tens of millions of IDPs are left behind.
The accounts of displaced people who have fled across borders are crucial in understanding and uncovering the problems in their home countries. For whatever reason, however, we rarely tell the stories of those who ultimately decide not to flee across borders. Perhaps this is due to a lack of political will – disguised as respect for sovereignty – to look inside borders to address suffering. Or is it more to do with a reluctance to confront the misery of those we don’t know personally?
There are inconsistencies in the response to the global displacement crisis that resonate ─ albeit often not openly ─ among refugees and IDPs. In Yambio, South Sudan, in November 2009, I spoke to people who had escaped attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. The men, women and children from South Sudan’s areas along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo had fled their homes, in search of safety and assistance inland at the UN military base in Yambio. However, they discovered that, as IDPs, they were not entitled to help from UN mission agencies; caring for IDPs was the responsibility of the national government with the aid of international organisations ─ both lacking in presence at that time.
At the same time, Congolese nationals, fleeing from the same LRA attacks, were refugees and, as such, received food rations and other basic assistance. These South Sudanese IDPs and Congolese refugees shared the same language, Zande, originated from adjacent areas, and had experienced the same violence by the same perpetrators. But they were treated very differently only because of a long-established boundary line. I could not explain that rationale to the understandably aggrieved IDPs, who had lost trust in the UN mission.
No explanation was needed however for the way Congolese refugees shared their rations with the South Sudanese IDPs. The refugees understood the plight of the IDPs more than anyone else, as not long ago the situation had been reversed, when South Sudanese sought refuge in Congo, often living side by side with Congolese IDPs.
The resolve and generosity demonstrated by people displaced from and across either side of the border, with no training in international law or humanitarian practice, should be replicated by us all, not least the policymakers seeking to address the plight of the forcibly displaced. My top resolution for the New Year is to help alleviate the plight of IDPs worldwide to the best of my ability. I hope it will be yours too.
About the author
Ledio Cakaj is a researcher and writer focused on armed groups, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, and mass displacement. He has worked for close to two decades in the Balkans and Central Africa and is the author of "When the walking defeats you: one man's journey as Joseph Kony's bodyguard,” (Zed Books, November 2016). For more information: https://lediocakaj.com/