Development environment

What is Internal Displacement

Internal displacement refers to the forced movement of people within the country they live in.

Millions of people are forced to flee their homes or places of habitual residence each year, including in the context of conflict, violence, development projects, disasters and climate change, and remain displaced within their countries of residence. Millions more live in situations of protracted displacement or face chronic displacement risk.

As of the end of 2016, 40.3 million people were living in internal displacement because of conflict and violence. This is a crisis of enormous proportion and yet, the world is largely unaware. 

Though women and children often make up the majority of the internally displaced, their particular protection, assistance and reintegration or relocation needs are often overlooked or not addressed with priority. National authorities are also responsible for ensuring the specific concerns of groups including women heads of household, unaccompanied minors, persons with disabilities, and the elderly, are taken into account and addressed. Marginalised groups are disproportionately affected and often experience discrimination, including minority ethnic groups, indigenous populations, the rural poor and informal settlers in urban areas.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UN, 1998) sets out the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the obligations of governments towards them in accordance with international law. the document emphasises the primary responsibility of national authorities for protecting and assisting all IDPs, regardless of the cause of their displacement. These principles underlie IDMC’s monitoring and analysis of situations worldwide.

“Internal displacement is the great tragedy of our time. The internally displaced people are among the most vulnerable of the human family” Kofi-Annan, Former UN Secretary General

Who are internally displaced people?

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are "Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998).

The key elements of this definition (which is descriptive, rather than providing for a legal status) are:

1) The involuntary character of the movement. 

2) The fact that such movement takes place within national borders

IDPs include both citizens as well as other habitual residents of the country in which they are displaced, which may include, for example, stateless persons.

Internally displaced people include, but are not limited to:

  • Families caught between warring parties and having to flee their homes under relentless bombardments or the threat of armed attacks, whose own governments may be responsible for displacing them
  • Residents of poor neighborhoods rendered unsafe and uninhabitable, at least temporarily, by the impacts of weather-related, geophysical or technological hazards
  • Indigenous communities forced from their ancestral lands to make way for the construction of dams and other infrastructure projects
  • Families pushed to leave their homes by constant harassment by local criminal gangs
  • Rural communities whose livelihoods are decimated by drought, leaving them unable to feed their families and forced to seek external help elsewhere
  • Communities from coastal, mountainous or arid areas whose land and livelihoods are irrevocably lost because of gradual environmental degradation linked to the impacts of climate change

IDPs are entitled to enjoy the same rights and freedoms under international and national laws as do other people in their country. 

Some of the typical needs and protection risks that arise in internal displacement include family separation, loss of documentation, freedom of movement in and out of camps, loss of property, and further exposure to the risk of secondary or onward displacement.

Achieving a durable solution to internal displacement means that IDPs no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are directly linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement.

Attaining a durable solution to internal displacement is a process that can be achieved through sustainable integration:

  • back in the place of origin (return)
  • in the area where IDPs have taken refuge (local integration); or
  • elsewhere in the country (relocation)