Preventing and resolving internal displacement is both a national obligation and a global imperative
by Alexandra Bilak
Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
22 May 2017
While politicians, the media and the general public have been focused on the fate of refugees and migrants worldwide, another massive and largely neglected crisis has continued unabated behind many countries’ borders. In 2016, IDMC recorded 31.1 million new cases of people becoming displaced internally because of conflict, violence or disasters.
This figure, published this week in our 2017 global report on internal displacement, is the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second.
Of the 65.3 million people now displaced by conflict and violence in the world, two thirds of them are displaced internally.
The fate of these people lies in the hands of their governments, some of whom are unwilling or unable to assist and protect them.
Internal displacement is a crisis of enormous proportions that the world has effectively sidelined; which is a short-sighted failure that highlights a lack of solidarity and empathy, but also impacts the way we are responding to the global refugee crisis.
More broadly, it shows just how far we are from meeting our collective targets as a global community.
Why should the world care about internal displacement?
Member States’ commitment to “leave no-one behind” is at the heart of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognizes that the Agenda’s targets should be met for all people, especially the most vulnerable and furthest behind.
It warns that the persistent presence of displaced people on a country’s territory will, over time, slow down the development of the communities that host them and of societies as a whole.
If we don’t change the way we look at internal displacement, and invest more effort in preventing and resolving it, the target to reduce the numbers living in displacement by 2030 will only be remembered as a missed opportunity. If we don’t turn this tide, displacement will continue increasing in the future.
A better understanding of internal displacement is key to shaping preparedness and response efforts during all phases of displacement, regardless of whether or not a person crosses an international border.
We know there is a link between internal displacement and cross-border movement: six of the ten countries that produced most refugees in 2016 - Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria - were also among the ten with the largest numbers of IDPs.
Syria is a poignant example of the connection between human suffering inside national borders and exodus abroad: in a country devastated by more than six years of violent civil war, families have been reported moving up to 25 times before leaving the country in a desperate search for safety, and becoming refugees, asylum seekers and international migrants.
Despite some piecemeal evidence, we still don’t know how many of today’s internally displaced people are likely to become tomorrow’s refugees, and at what point during a displacement crisis this transition is most likely to happen.
It is important to understand how many, when and why IDPs cross borders, as well as whether returning refugees risk becoming internally displaced too, especially when the conditions they return to are the same as those that forced them to flee in the first place. This evidence would be crucial for effective policy and operational responses, and for better protection, along the entire displacement trajectory.
Getting to the root of the problem
How can we tackle internal displacement when, ultimately, it takes place within the borders of a sovereign country, and comes with a minefield of political sensitivities?
While we need to prevent and mitigate the main triggers of displacement - conflict, violence and disasters - we also need to address their underlying drivers - namely poverty and inequality, fragile and weak governance, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change.
Figures show that the total number of people living in internal displacement has been on a constant and steady rise: 40.3 million people were living in internal displacement caused by conflict and violence at the end of 2016, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.
This means that each year, new displacement adds to already significant caseloads of IDPs, and ends up lasting far longer than it should as humanitarian assistance tapers off and governments struggle to respond with adequate assistance.
Most internal displacement happens in low and lower-income countries, with governments and national institutions weakened by decades of crisis, and hit by multiple and repeated shocks along the way. In the face of many competing priorities, they are often unable to respond to the many and complex needs of IDPs.
Many more political and financial resources need to be invested in conflict prevention, disaster risk management, state and peace-building and diplomacy. There needs to be a fundamental shift away from meeting immediate needs to reducing vulnerability and future risk.
In 2016, spending on refugee resettlement within donor countries surpassed humanitarian financing for other countries for the first time. This growing share of assistance spent within donor countries means that not enough is spent on countries were the crises originate and where we see high levels of internal displacement.
Finally, countries need to be reminded that reliable and timely data and analysis is the bedrock of any effective response to displacement. States are not investing sufficiently in the collection and publication of credible data on internal displacement, which severely limits their capacity to address IDPs’ needs, and our ability to paint a comprehensive picture of internal displacement worldwide.
If governments are serious about improving the many millions of lives blighted by internal displacement and preventing others from suffering the same upheaval and trauma in the future, they need to recognize that with sovereignty comes responsibility, and that preventing and resolving internal displacement is both a national obligation and a global imperative.
* Access the 2017 Global Report on Internal Displacement: http://internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017
May 2017 (Guardian News, agencies)
Conflict, violence and natural disasters forced more than 31 million people to leave home and settle elsewhere within their countries last year, the equivalent of one person every second.
But while the number of people uprooted by conflict outnumbers refugees by two to one, they have been largely ignored by the international community, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, said that while resources had rightly been devoted to the refugee crisis, scant attention had been paid to people forced to resettle.
“Not including internal displacement as an integral part of that entire displacement and migration picture is very shortsighted, because by looking only at the point of arrival and not considering where those journeys started, inevitably you’re missing part of the picture,” she said.
“If you redirect attention to the countries of origin and to really understanding the driving forces of these movements it would be a much more strategic approach and investment,” added Bilak.
Last year, an estimated 6.9 million people were forced to leave their homes as a result of conflict and violence. Worst affected was the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 922,000 were displaced, a 50% rise on the previous year. Close behind was Syria (824,000), followed by Iraq (659,000), Afghanistan (653,000), Nigeria (501,000) and Yemen (478,000).
Disasters such as floods, storms and wildfires had an even greater effect, displacing 24.2 million people, more than three times the number uprooted by conflict. This trend was at its most acute in east Asia and the Pacific. In China, 7.4 million were forced from their homes, with 5.9 million affected in the Philippines and a further 2.4 million in India. Floods accounted for half of all people displaced by disasters.
In some cases, a complex mix of conflict and disaster has forced communities from their homes, the report’s authors noted. It pointed to the situations unfolding in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, where drought combined with conflict and violence are fuelling displacement, severe food insecurity and famine.
Bilak said the number of displacements due to violence in DRC was proof that the underlying conflicts cannot be ignored. “Unless the crisis and the factors that lead to this crisis are addressed they will re-erupt on a cyclical basis.”
In May last year, the UN proposed that governments commit to reducing the number of internally displaced people by at least 50% by 2030. The report warned this is little more than an aspiration, however.
Last year, more aid was spent on refugee resettlement within donor nations than in the countries where displacement crises originated.
“What we focus on is the symptom of this breakdown of protection and human rights of people in their local communities. We just focus on the symptom, which is the people we see at our borders,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
He said there is a link with refugees – though the vast majority of displaced people do not have the opportunity or means to cross borders.
Six of the 10 countries that produced the most refugees in 2015 – Afghanistan, Colombia, DRC, South Sudan and Syria – were also among the 10 with the largest number of internally displaced people.
Egeland warned that without political intervention the situation will only get worse.
“First, conflict resolution needs to be redoubled, tripled, quadrupled,” he said. “It’s incredible there’s not a bigger pull towards a peaceful settlement of the Yemeni conflict. We also need to get economic life to countries like Yemen and elsewhere so there’s not a collapse in social structures there. Then we need investment in avoiding environmental degradation, and we need disaster risk reduction.”
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How to reduce risk from extreme weather events
by Robert Glasser, Petteri Taalas
UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, World Meteorological Organization
20 Apr 2017
A nightmare scenario for any community is to be taken by surprise in the middle of the night by a sudden disaster such as the mudslide that swept away hundreds of lives earlier this month in the Amazonian town of Mocoa in Putamayo, Colombia.
Heavy rain over a three-hour period combined with deforestation and unstable soils to reveal once more that human decisions often interact with extreme weather events to create disasters.
Events such as the Colombia mudslide, the recent Peru floods which claimed 100 lives, and last October’s Hurricane Matthew in Haiti which caused over 600 deaths and US$2.7 billion of economic losses, highlight the need to address the underlying social and economic forces that place human settlements at risk.
Forecasts, early warning systems and effective national weather services play an essential role in protecting local communities from weather and climate impacts such as flooding, tidal surges and heatwaves.
However, the disasters cited above highlight the growing complexity of extreme weather events in areas of the world affected by climate change, poverty, deforestation, and limited institutional capacity for preventing and reducing disaster risks.
During the recent flooding, some 500 municipalities throughout Colombia have been on alert for possible landslides. The common feature of most landslides is the unstable soil on a denuded hillside that combines with flash floods to create an avalanche of mud and debris destroying everything in its path.
The loss of life from such events can be truly shocking. They can only be avoided, firstly, by recognising the protective value of eco-systems such as forests and enforcing legislation and regulations that protect them from being overexploited for lumber and crops. Forests help to regulate rainfall, maintain soil quality and to absorb CO2, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming. Their absence today only makes for a very unsafe tomorrow.
Secondly, the pressures of population and economic growth need to be recognized and addressed. Housing and infrastructure constructed in danger zones such as flood plains or at the foot of unstable hillsides can put lives at risk. Alleviating poverty and strengthening public institutions is vital to reducing this risk.
Reducing flood risk also requires combining actionable information delivered through forecasts and early warnings, land-use planning, natural and artificial protective structures such as levees, and contingency plans for minimizing losses when a hazardous event does occur. This makes it possible to move away from the paradigm of keeping people and water separated and towards an integrated flood management approach that maximizes the net benefits of living in flood plains.
Thirdly, a very significant effort is now underway to ramp up multi-hazard early warning systems, especially in low-income countries and small island developing states. Many of these areas face high levels of climate risk caused by greenhouse gas emissions for which they bear the least responsibility.
Rising sea levels, warming land and sea temperatures are all contributing to the severity of extreme weather events in a variety of ways.
Climate risk exacerbates the more general risk of disasters that humanity has always faced. Over the last 40 years there has been a doubling of extreme weather events which have caused huge loss of life, disrupted billions of lives and caused staggering economic losses.
Fortunately, thanks to the improvements in early warning systems which have taken place, including as a result of the use of weather satellites, the development of meteorological services at national level, and the early action taken by civil protection systems to organize timely evacuations, mortality numbers from weather-related disasters have been on the decline.
Further improving multi-hazard early warning systems is high on the agenda of next month’s biennial Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico. However, these latest tragedies are a reminder that early warning needs to be combined with prevention, preparedness and policies to address economic and social pressures.
In this way we can reduce mortality, the numbers of people affected by disasters, and economic losses as outlined in the global plan adopted two years ago by UN Member States, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Local governments have an essential role to play in ensuring that strategies at the municipal level are aligned with the Sendai Framework and are implemented. If development is sustainable, then these tragedies are less likely to occur.
* Robert Glasser, is Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Petteri Taalas, is Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization
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