Development environment

Patterns of internal to cross-border displacement

Are today’s IDPs tomorrow’s refugees?

It is often assumed that refugees and other displaced people who leave or flee their countries of origin were at some point internally displaced, but the relationship between internal and cross-border displacement is poorly understood.

Evidence points to high numbers of refugees who were internally displaced before fleeing abroad, and suggests that the push and pull factors for internal displacement from areas affected by conflict are similar to those reported by refugees.

The global number of conflict IDPs has been roughly twice that of refugees in recent years, and the gap between estimates for the two groups has been growing over the last 20 years.

While the vast majority of people displaced by disasters remain within their country of origin, those who do cross borders may face gaps in protection and data collection on these situations is rarely systematic and knowledge is relatively scarce.

Addressing these gaps is the first priority identified in the Nansen Initiative’s protection agenda to which IDMC is contributing through better understanding of internal and cross-border flows.

While the return of displaced people to their conflict- or disaster-affected country of origin may be the viable and preferred option, return to situations of insecurity, instability and deprivation may continue the cycle of displacement, this time internally. 

Our work

Further data and research is needed to understand the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movement and return. A number of questions need to be answered to develop the evidence:

  • First, how many IDPs move across borders? Quantitative analysis of displacement patterns and trends in different contexts, disaggregated by age, sex and other characteristics, is important for developing appropriate policy and planning timely responses. Quantifying cross-border movements improves the accuracy and comprehensiveness of our internal displacement data in relation to both stocks and flows. To achieve this, we monitor where, when and why data is and is not collected and shared in order to identify and address gaps in both data and protection.
  • Second, what combination of factors determine different IDPs’ onward and cross-border movements, and which have strongest bearing on their decisions to leave or return? This knowledge is needed to understand short to long-term needs towards the attainment of durable solutions and inform policy and action.
  • Third, we need a much better understanding of the situation of people who return to their countries of origin, and a measure of the risk that their displacement will continue internally and how their progress towards durable solutions may be stalled. We need insights into the factors which influence that risk, including whether return is safe, voluntary and protects the dignity of the people concerned, the conditions that they return to return to, and how women, men, children, older people and vulnerable groups are differently affected.