1 April 2015 | Roger Zetter

Guest blogger Professor Roger Zetter: “For many, internal displacement is the first step on a long and perilous journey of forced migration”

Professor Roger Zetter is the former director at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, and a highly respected expert in the fields of forced migration and displacement. In his latest report “Protecting forced migrants: A state of the art report of concepts, challenges and ways forward”, he analyses current and future challenges concerning the protection needs of different groups of displaced people, including IDPs. IDMC was honoured to be able to put some questions to him about his findings.


In your report you mention the idea of a continuum of forced migration, do you think there is an argument that IDPs, refugees, forced migrants and so forth are all part of one continuum?

The “displacement continuum” describes a chain of movement of increasing numbers of migrants, for the most part forced, who transit through and then outside their region of origin and eventually arrive at the borders of  the “global north” in places such as the United States, Australia and the European Union.

For many, internal displacement is the first step on this long and perilous journey, and is often the precursor of cross-border movements and an early warning of the potential for subsequent refugee and complex mixed migration flows.Since many of these forced migrants are not covered by protection norms or legal frameworks, each stage of the journey along the continuum exposes them to high levels of risk and low levels of protection.

It is crucial to remember that despite all the political rhetoric in the ”global north” about floods of refugees and other unauthorised migration, 95 per cent of forcibly displaced people remain in the ”global south” – the vast majority of which are IDPs.

Protecting IDPs should be the role of the state, but some lack the capacity to do this, while many others seem to lack the will. Why is this?

Indeed many states lack the capacity and resources to fully protect IDPs. Disaster Risk Reduction, resilience building and resettling people all cost money, which countries most prone to, or impacted by, displacement can barely afford. In such countries, the whole-of-government response is lacking. Instead, responsibility is split between government departments resulting in a lack of coordination as well as a failure to adequately prioritise displacement.

There is also the lack of political will. You need less than the fingers of one hand to count the countries where the norms laid out in the Guiding Principles  are truly a fundamental part of state policy and action. This is because displacement, often bound up with land rights, is a highly sensitive issue in the history and politics of most countries. State fragility impedes the political commitment to develop an effective framework to protect human rights in many fields, including displacement. And because it is marginalised from political discourse, policies to tackle internal displacement are poorly developed and largely reactive.

Would you agree with the findings from a recent study by the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement that IDPs now risk being "mainstreamed into oblivion" by the international community? Given the growing scale and complexity of forced migration, what can we do to reverse this trend?

I actually think the issue of IDPs remains high on the international community’s agenda, which is motivated by the wide range of humanitarian, security and developmental challenges that internal displacement poses. The problem is that this awareness and advocacy has not been translated into effective commitments and action at the national level. Thus, the issue is less about mainstreaming by the international community; the real challenge is that the issue of IDPs has rarely if at all been mainstreamed by the duty bearers, the national actors whose responsibility it is to protect IDPs in their own countries.

Nevertheless, the international community must sustain and scale-up its well-established role, notably through IDMC, in tackling the growing scale and complexity of internal forced displacement.  They can do this by supporting and encouraging national governments, developing research and a knowledge base on vulnerability, displacement and protection responses and by encouraging and facilitating national governments to adopt comprehensive protection policies and norms. 

The international community can also offer more support by facilitating international and regional agreements, encouraging and supporting civil society actors and, of course, by increasing funding for policies and actions that mitigate the causes of displacement.

How do countries cope with the challenge of hosting both refugee and IDP populations? What are some potential solutions?

A small but increasing number of countries experience what we might call the ”double burden of displacement” where they have both refugees and IDPs living within their borders, as is the case in Kenya, the Central African Republic, Chad, Iraq and Syria, for example. This is an extremely worrying trend because such countries are not coping very well, and there are no easy solutions since forced displacement severely undermines development strategies, accentuates fiscal stress and puts pressure on fragile governments and the socio-economic fabric of countries.

Problematic though it is, both politically and operationally, in my report and in other research I am conducting, for example for the Solutions Alliance and the World Bank, I have been advocating the need to reframe humanitarian crises as development-led challenges. Since protracted displacement is the norm for many displaced people, it is vital that both displaced populations – whether IDPs or refugees – and the communities who offer them refuge, have access to the resources that enhance their long-term economic livelihoods. Cash and vouchers, now increasingly deployed by humanitarian actors, are a vital instrument to this end, providing displaced households with the agency to determine their own economic priorities. Alongside these micro-economic initiatives, macro-economic support for national governments is also essential.

The development-led approach calls for renewed efforts by the international community. But it offers, in my view, a far more sustainable long-term response which can also have a protection dividend. Unfortunately, I must admit that in countries in turmoil, like Iraq and Syria, little if anything can be done to relieve the plight of IDPs and refugees while these conflicts rage on.

Read Professor Zetter’s latest report:  Protecting forced migrants: A state of the art report of concepts, challenges and ways forward is published by the Swiss Federal Commission on Migration.

More about the author

Zetter2 Roger Zetter is Emeritus Professor of Refugee Studies in the University of Oxford and retired as Director of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) in September 2011. His long association with the RSC commenced in 1988 as Founding Editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies, published by Oxford University Press, a position held until 2001.

Following degrees from Cambridge and Nottingham Universities he completed his DPhil at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.  In an academic career spanning over 35 years and with regional expertise in sub-Saharan Africa, the EU and the Middle East, his teaching, research, publications and consultancy have included all stages of the “refugee cycle”, focusing on institutional and policy dimensions of the humanitarian regime and the impacts on forced migrants. He has been a consultant to many governments and international organisations.

Recent research themes include: protracted refugee situations (Norwegian MFA) environmental change and population displacement (MacArthur Foundation, UNHCR, Swiss MFA, Norwegian MFA); development-led responses to the economic costs and impacts of forced migration (World Bank, Danish MFA, EC).

He was lead consultant for the IASC 2011 Strategy for Managing Humanitarian Challenges in Urban Areas and editor of the IFRC World Disasters Report 2012 – themed on forced migration and displacement.

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