A World of Displaced Persons
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.
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.
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.
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.
- natural disasters > Natural disaster
- A generic term used to describe a meteorological, climatic or geophysical event that has consequences for human societies (victims, economic losses and physical damage). The disaster depends on the cause of the event and the society’s degree of vulnerability. The term is used to describe both sudden phenomena (earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, etc.) and those that evolve slowly (drought, desertification, ocean acidification, etc.). The term of “natural” disaster is often criticized for concealing the structural causes of crises and the political responsibilities involved, both in triggering the disaster (poor management of resources, absence of preventive policies, etc.) and in the responses made to it.
- conflicts > War
- Violent confrontation between armed groups over values, status, power or scarce resources, in which the aim of each party is to neutralize, weaken or eliminate their adversaries. This organized, collective, armed violence can be undertaken by states (via their national armies) or by non-state groups; it can bring several states into opposition (interstate war) or occur within a single state (civil war). The former, progressively codified within a legal framework, have become rare, while the latter, today primarily caused by state institutional failure, are tending to become more international in scope, to last over time (sometimes decades) and to be extremely devastating, especially for civilian populations.
- refugees > Refugee
- A status applying to persons living outside their country of origin, who have been recognized by their host country as refugees according to definition set out in the Geneva Convention of 1951. This convention grants the protection and assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (HCR) to anyone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The term refugee should not be confused with that of asylum seeker, which applies to people who have fled their country and have submitted a request for asylum to their host country or to the HCR in order to benefit from refugee status. A refugee has been an asylum seeker, but not all asylum seekers have their request accepted (those who have been rejected must then leave the country).
- human rights > Human rights
- These are the fundamentally inalienable and universal rights and duties of human beings, which are indefeasible and universal. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these were limited to “natural rights” (basic freedoms considered to be allied to human nature) but human rights have now been expanded to include civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights on the basis of human freedom and dignity. Human rights have been enshrined in the constitutions of most democratic regimes. They are also subject to many protective provisions at both regional and international levels.
- international humanitarian law > International humanitarian law
- This seeks to mitigate the suffering of victims of armed conflict and to protect civilian populations, imposing obligations on states toward one another and toward their populations. It is also called the “law of war” or the “law of armed conflict” and has evolved along with the changes in these. Codified by the International Committee of the Red Cross (created in 1863) and the first convention in 1864, it is based on the principles of neutrality, the prohibition of certain inhumane weapons, and immunity for non-combatants. The 1949 Geneva Conventions (protecting the sick and wounded in the armed forces, prisoners of war and civilians in times of war) were completed by Additional Protocols in 1977 and 2005. The International Criminal Court (ICC) judges war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
- development > Development
- Definitions of development and its opposite – underdevelopment – have varied considerably according to the political objectives and ideological positions of those using these words. In the 1970s, Walt Whitman Rostow conceived of it as an almost mechanical process involving successive stages of economic growth and social improvement, whereas Samir Amin analyzed the relationships between center and peripheries, seeing the development of the former as founded on the exploitation of the latter. In Latin America, the dependency theory condemned the ethnocentrism of the universal view that the “periphery” of underdeveloped states could simply catch up through modernization. Talking of poor or developing “countries” masks the inequalities that also exist within societies (in both Northern and Southern hemispheres) and individuals’ connections to globalization processes.
- institutions > Institutions
- The term institution refers to social structures (rules, standards, practices, actions, roles) that are long-lasting, organized in a stable and depersonalized way, and play a part in regulating social relationships. An institution can be formalized within organizations (international or otherwise). In political science, institutionalism tackles the objects of political analysis by studying their structural basis and their organizational model rather than thinking about how they relate to society.
- security > Security
- A set of representations and strategies developed by an individual or collectivity to reduce the threats to which they feel exposed. At the international level, security may consist of: 1) an unstable, precarious balance between the security of different nations, underpinned by their degree of power; 2) the concerted organization of this balance (international security); 3) the establishment of a security regime imposed on all states that have signed up to it (collective security). Above and beyond any tangible threat, the language of security tends to represent objects or groups of people as dangers for the security of states, notably in order to justify particular security policies (state of emergency, military action, closing of borders, etc.).
- migrants > Migration
- Movement of people leaving their country of origin permanently (emigration) to relocate to another country (immigration), which might be voluntary or forced (war, poverty, unemployment, human rights violations, climate factors, etc.), and which often involves temporary stays of varying duration in several transit countries. Migratory flows, which are an integral component of humanity’s history, give rise to a range of public policy measures linked to specific political, economic and cultural contexts and understandings of nationality. Host states seek to organize immigration, sometimes to attract it (need for labor, exploitation of specific territories, naturalizations, etc.), and most often to restrict it (border controls, quotas, residence permits, etc.). In most cases the states of origin seek to maintain relations with their nationals and diaspora communities living abroad.
- civil societies > Civil Society
- At the national level, civil society refers to a social body that is separate from the state and greater than the individuals and groups of which it is formed (social classes, socio-professional categories, generations, etc.). The notion of a global civil society emerged in the 1970s (John Burton, World Society) and refers to social relations formed in the international arena and beyond the control of states, when citizens of all countries take concerted action to demand regulations that may be supranational or infranational. However, the term conceals a great diversity. The notion of world society emerged among geographers in the 1990s and refers to the more all-encompassing process of creating a social space at the planetary level.