The Global Growth of Displaced People

Displacing Teen.” Credit: Alessandro Galantucci

June 2, 2017; Al Jazeera

The number of internally displaced people (IDP) has doubled since 2000 and now surpasses the number of refugees two to one. Their numbers are expected to continue to increase unless the conditions that cause displacement—namely, conflict and environmental disasters—change. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that more international aid is spent on resettling refugees, who are more visible.

As of December 2016, there are 40.3 million internally displaced people globally. More than 31 million of these were displaced in 2016. That year, on average, “one person was forced to flee every second,” a trend the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council called “horrific.”

Of the 31 million people displaced in 2016, 24.2 million of them, 78 percent, were displaced by environmental disasters. Environmental conditions include floods, landslides, typhoons, storms, wildfires, and severe winter.

Though the 31 million new IDP cases last year were reported in 125 countries, more than 75 percent live in just 10 countries. Those displaced by conflict are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (at the top of the list with 922,000), Syria (824,000), Iraq (659,000), Afghanistan (653,000), and Nigeria (501,000). China topped the list of the countries affected by environmental disasters, with 7,434,000 displaced internally. Also listed were the Philippines (5,930,000), India (2,400,000), Indonesia (1,246,000), and the U.S. (1,107,000).

The last numbers available for both IDPs and refugees, tracked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are for 2015. By that year, there were 40.8 million IDPs and 21.3 refugees. More than half of the refugees, 53 percent, are from Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Despite this two-to-one ratio, IDPs can be largely invisible and a politically sensitive issue. Alexandra Bilak, IDMC director, told Al Jazeera, “The IDPs are behind the sovereignty of a country’s border…People tend not to think about them as readily as refugees and migrants…People say displacement is a domestic issue and should be resolved at a domestic level.”

However, the boundary between refugee and IDP isn’t always distinct. Al Jazeera reports that many refugees who return to their home country are afraid of being internally displaced. In fact, according to the World Bank, large-scale returns between 2000 and 2016 were reflected in the significant IDP increase. Conversely, IDPs seeking better living conditions often cross country lines, becoming refugees.

Bilak said, “Looking at the conflicts around the world as well as climate change issues, we don’t expect the numbers to go down anytime soon…The only way the numbers can decrease is if there is more investment on working on the underling drivers that force people to flee—poverty reduction, peace building, and climate change.”

If the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is an indicator of where we are on addressing this challenge, the news is not good. Bilak notes that even though five million people were killed in DRC between 1994 and 2003 due to ethnic violence, instability remains, and attacks have increased, the U.S. is urging the UN to reduce the number of UN troops in the country, currently at 19,000. She also said, “It’s unrealistic to expect the international community to solve a problem as huge as the DRC alone.”

UNHCR reported that “[w]e are now witnessing the highest level of displacement on record.” And Bilak noted, “There is very little humanitarian assistance on the ground in some parts.”

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we cannot solve problems at the level at which they are created. It’s time to reconsider ideas about human rights and the environment being tied to national sovereignty because, clearly, the effects of catastrophic conditions ripple out beyond national borders. Nonprofits and NGOs are already working hard to address the underlying drivers. We now have a role to play in enlarging the frame.—Cyndi Suarez