In 2017, over 40 million people were displaced internally—exiled in their own countries to protect themselves from violence and persecution. Perpetually condemned to destitution, wandering from one camp to another, they can only return to their homes if they are guaranteed a minimum of security. Failing this, they will become future migrants or refugees as soon as they are able.

Exiled in their own country, internal displaced persons are civilians – mainly women and children – who are forced to flee the place where they live to try and protect themselves from violence or persecution. This category now excludes victims of natural disasters whose protection has been under debate since the Nansen Initiative of 2012.

Evolution of refugees and displaced persons, 1990-2016

Sources : IDMC, ww; UNHCR,

Comment: When comparing UN High Commissioner for Refugees data and data from IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) – which monitors and collects data regarding internal displacements caused by conflicts for the UN –, it becomes evident that since the end of the Cold War, the number of internally displaced persons (who are not protected by international law) is still higher than the number of refugees, and has now more than doubled.

An invisible majority with little or no protection

In 2017, 40.3 million people were displaced within their own country due to conflicts ; that is 62% of the total number of displaced persons in the world, and 26 million because of natural disasters, or 500,000 fewer than in 2015. There is no legally binding universal instrument for displaced people, who cannot benefit from assistance (housing and food aid) and protection (against abuse and forced repatriation) to which refugees have a right according to the 1951 (whose application in reality is already problematic). They therefore depend on their own state – which is usually undermined by intense, recurrent and lasting internal conflicts – where their rights are systematically violated by attacks, poor treatment, rape and sexual violence, destruction of property, inability to access basic services, etc. In 1998, the United Nations Human Rights Commission adopted non-binding directive principles and evoked the international law of human rights and international humanitarian law, the violation of which is responsible for displacements. In 2005, the so-called cluster approach was put into practice so as to obtain greater coherence between the parties in the action, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) was tasked with overseeing the protection, housing, coordination, and running of all the camps of displaced persons.

Internally displaced persons, 2016

Source: IDMC,

Comment: For certain countries, the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) counts the number of displaced persons within national borders (here, 56 states and over 40 million people). The map shows both the numbers and the proportion of the population they represent. The two figures are not representative of flows during 2016 but rather the stocks in 2016, i.e. all the people displaced up to that date. The highest figures therefore reflect very different situations: in Colombia, the result of half a century of recurrent armed conflict, in Syria, 7 years of war, and 5 years in South Sudan.

The legal blind spot in which displaced persons find themselves has resulted in the tardy and incomplete nature of reliable data collection, already complex due to the multiple causes and cumulative and frequent character of displacements. Focused on crises, the data tell us nothing about much earlier displaced persons or about more discreet but recurrent situations where rights are violated or there are forced expulsions, competition for mining resources and land, etc. Only research programs, substantial financing and political determination would enable the HCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC, a specialized NGO founded in 1998) to improve things.

Evolution of internally displaced persons, 1993-2016

Source: UNHCR , 

Comment: This diagram was created using HCR data and shows the volumes and evolution over time of the number of internal displaced persons in some countries in conflict. The irregularity of the curves highlights the spasmodic nature of the violence, causing masses of civilians to flee from conflict zones. The selection according to peaks of displacement shows that throughout the most recent period, over half of displaced persons in the world were concentrated in four states: Syria, Colombia, Iraq, and Sudan.

Africa and the Middle East

More than half the displaced persons in the world are concentrated in Africa and the Middle East, or 59.3% in 2009 and 62.7% in 2016, with 12.6 million for each of these two regions. Although the violence of conflicts in the Middle East has led to a tripling of displaced persons during the period, Africa still has the highest numbers. In the extended period of work by the African Union (AU) and the UN on the Great Lakes region in the late 1990s, the scale, duration, and cyclical character of displacements led the AU and states to establish the Kampala Convention in 2009, for the protection and assistance of displaced persons on the continent. This text, without precedent in the world, specifies the causes of displacement and seeks to fill the gaps in international law, force states to include it in their national laws, and build bridges between all the internal and international actors and development policies. Signed in 2017 by 40 states out of 56, its application has nevertheless come up against many obstacles and appears to produce few effects, as testified by the NG working on the ground.

A mixture of refugee flows and a continuum of mobility

The camps of refugees and displaced persons are symptomatic of the failure of state institutions, new forms of conflict, social disintegration and exclusion, and international inequalities.

They are places of transition that have become places of permanent insecurity where roots have been put down, making them forceful symbols of the contemporary world. Their number – it is difficult to be precise but they amount to thousands –, their duration (for example, the Somalian camp at Dadaab in Kenya has existed since the 1990s), and the living conditions for their inhabitants focus minds on the humanitarian problem, not to say the security and ecological problems they raise, whereas in fact thinking should be broadened to embrace all kinds of mobility and development questions. The failure to connect data on internal displacements, refugees and economic migrants, added to the difficulty of knowing their very different individual stories, conceal the strong and complex relationships between these three types of mobility. All migratory flows are mixed; studying them over time reveals that displaced people are probably future migrants or refugees, and that return to their home country in conditions with no guarantee of personal security will create future displaced persons. This wandering of the destitute is in fact a continuum of the different types of mobility, and concealing them condemns the illusions of quota-fixing in advance. Only by striving toward the goals of reducing poverty, combating social disintegration and exclusion, and satisfying basic needs we will be able to build a world that protects and promotes mobility in partnership with all state and local actors, regional bodies, international organizations, NGOs, civil societies and the private sector.

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