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The forgotten millions

22 Jan 2015


May 2014, Malakal, South Sudan: People traipse through the mud at a UN base in Malakal in the centre of South Sudan. Credit: OCHA
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OCHA’s Policy Chief on the plight of the millions of people internally displaced by conflict and disasters, a decade on from Humanitarian Reform.

By Hansoerg Strohmeyer, OCHA’s Chief of Policy Development.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the chaos of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the global humanitarian community went through a major process of reform. This process – known as Humanitarian Reform – created much of the architecture that governments and aid groups still use today, including thematic clusters to ensure better coordination, and global funds to ensure faster financing for emergency response.

A decade on, OCHA, in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Switzerland have supported a new study by the Brookings Institution examining how this process has improved the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The answer: we’ve made some ground as an international community, but we have a long way to go.

Progress first. Since Kofi Annan’s landmark Africa report in 1997 elevated the concerns of IDPs internationally much has been achieved. Humanitarian Reform has made a difference for IDPs, primarily thanks to the establishment of clearer coordination mechanisms. It has also led to more predictable funding for emergencies, including through the Central Emergency Response Fund and country-based pooled funds. The Global Protection Cluster has also helped address protection needs.

We have also seen progress in the way the Security Council deals with this issue. Ten years ago, it was difficult to even discuss the issue of internal displacement in the Security Council. The issue, it was believed at the time, was simply too sensitive for States. This is far less the case today.

Last May, for example, the Security Council devoted an ad hoc meeting to the issue of protecting IDPs. That said the Council now needs to go beyond simply adding the term “IDP” to its resolutions. It needs to support Member States in strengthening national institutions to deal with internal displacement, and promote the development of specific strategies on this issue.

At the national and regional level we have also seen progress. The adoption of the Kampala Convention, national legislation based on the Guiding Principles of IDPs and a number of national strategies and action plans. While this normative progress is significant, more needs to be done to address the specific vulnerabilities of IDPs – their lack of protection, access to legal status and documentation – and to press-upon national and international actors the urgency required to find solutions for the longtime displaced.

Displacement: For many, a life-long sentence

We are at a critical moment. The number of conflict-induced IDPs – over 33 million at the end of 2013 and the majority of them women and children – has never been higher. An estimated 8 million people were displaced during 2013, while only 1 million returned home.

The average length of conflict-induced displacement is an astonishing 17 years, which means that for many, becoming displaced is a life-long sentence. I have seen in discussions with representatives from Governments or international agencies how this fact can change how they see the issue, when they realize that internal displacement is not only a humanitarian issue but ultimately and most importantly a long term development issue that requires the full and sustained engagement of a diversity of national and international actors.

Disasters and urban displacement

We should not forget people displaced by disasters either. In 2013 alone, an estimated 22 million were displaced by floods, storms and the like. The likelihood of being hit by a disaster is twice as high today as it was in the late 1970s. However, unlike for conflict-induced IDPs, there is no accumulated data for disaster-induced displacement. The impression is that disaster-induced displacement is short-term. But this is often not the case, especially in areas where people are already highly vulnerable and may also be impacted by conflict.

Urban displacement is more an issue today than it was 10 years ago. Urban IDPs sink at the bottom of society, hidden among extremely poor populations. The majority of IDPs are no longer staying in camps, but instead are living in informal settlements on the outskirts of cities or among host communities. This requires a different way of operating, one that better engages local partners and municipalities.

We need national leadership and ownership

Internal displacement is an issue which requires national leadership and ownership. Some Governments have indeed stepped up their engagement, adopting laws and policies on internal displacement, and strengthening their own coordination structures on internal displacement. The adoption of the Kampala Convention on IDPs in 2009 is a major achievement as well.

But in many instances, there is still lack of clarity on the national institutions mandated to deal with internal displacement, and on the steps they need take to address this issue. Without being properly addressed, long-term displacement generates the entrenched marginalization of entire communities, which can then also create further instability and lead to conflict.

We also need effective international leadership

On the part of the international community, dealing effectively with internal displacement requires the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator, to ensure a strategic and coherent response, with the support of OCHA, and with cluster leads, particularly on protection, shelter and camp management. Unfortunately, we need to recognize a certain lack of understanding of internal displacement among humanitarian organizations, even in countries where it is a defining characteristic of the humanitarian context.

This lack of understanding of the specific vulnerabilities and needs of IDPs, and the generally poor understanding of existing IDP frameworks, has led to the lumping of IDPs together with other conflict-affected populations, including host communities. This makes it less likely that their specific needs - for shelter, services and livelihoods, reunification and protection, for example – will be met.

While humanitarian leadership and advocacy on IDPs is important, the longer-term needs of IDPs cannot be addressed without stronger political leadership.  IDPs cannot only be a ‘caseload’ owned by humanitarian organizations. They must be the responsibility of the international community as a whole and solutions to protracted displacement will require sustained political attention and investment at senior levels.

Strengthening institutions and planning for the long-term

Five years ago, OCHA published a study, Stay and Deliver, which looked at how aid organizations could work effectively in high-risk areas at a time where violent attacks against humanitarian workers had tripled. We have made progress in “staying” but still have a long way in delivering in many conflict areas today, impacting the millions of IDPs displaced in Syria, South Sudan or Somalia.

So what are the answers?

They are many and varied. But the most important thing is that we need to start thinking of internal displacement as a long-term phenomenon that requires a longer-term approach. This year’s finalization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do this. In these goals, Governments must recognize the plight of tens of millions of internally displaced people around the world. The SDGs must recognize their right to live in safety and dignity, with access to essential services, education and legal documentation, and a legal status that will allow them to reclaim their future.

If the SDGs don’t acknowledge the right of internally displaced people to return safely to their homes, or to integrate into new communities, then we as an international community will have failed. Similarly, if they don’t reinforce the importance of building national capacity to deal with this issue, then the main promise of the SDGs – to leave no one behind - will remain unfulfilled.