Today, the United Nations estimates that 77 million people – more than 1% of the world’s population – are displaced within their own countries, having been forced to flee their homes by armed conflicts, violence, urbanization, development, and natural disasters. This is more than the population of France, the United Kingdom, or Turkey.
These people are not “refugees,” because they have not crossed an international border, but their experiences are often equally devastating. Today, the number of people who have been internally displaced by conflicts alone is twice that of refugees. With the increasing pattern of internal, rather than international, armed conflicts, and the rising regularity of extreme weather events affecting millions of people, internal displacement poses an even greater challenge to future generations.
Uprooted from their homes and livelihoods, and traumatized by the violence or sudden disaster that forced them to flee, the displaced are often thrust into an extremely precarious future with few resources. Think of the 15 million Chinese displaced following the Sichuan earthquake, the more than two million Iraqis uprooted within their country’s borders by sectarian and other violence, the 2.4 million displaced in Darfur, or the hundreds of thousands who have fled Mogadishu in the last year.
In the last decade, those displaced by conflicts alone rose from 19 million to 26 million, with millions more displaced by disasters. The plight of these victims long went unrecognized, as governments and the international community alike failed to acknowledge their rights to protection and assistance. In 1998, the UN issued Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which sets out these legal rights.
Ten years on, what impact have the Principles had on displaced people’s lives? The achievements are notable, if insufficient. We have raised awareness of the plight of the displaced, brought about changes in government policies, and raised billions of dollars to respond to their basic needs. This has helped save countless lives. Humanitarian efforts continue to be strengthened, including through a new rapid funding mechanism, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund.
But for every gain we have made, enormous difficulties still remain. The number of those displaced by natural disasters is rising, as the adverse effects of climate change continue to mount. Nine of every ten recorded disasters are now climate-related. As many as 50 million people around the world are estimated to be displaced each year by floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and landslides.
However sudden the initial displacement, the impact can last for generations, together with a long-term need for clean water, shelter, health care, and other basic services, as victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998 know from bitter experience. Nor are rich countries immune. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people remain in temporary shelters.
Moreover, violent armed groups, be they government-supported militias or rebel movements, increasingly embrace terror as a tactic to force civilians from their homes, as seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Millions of people remain impoverished, face discrimination, and suffer long-lasting trauma even after the guns fall silent. Life in camps is demoralizing and ultimately dehumanizing. The world rightly focuses on the tragedy in Darfur, but overlooks another four million Sudanese still displaced as a result of the north-south conflict, many of whom continue to live in terrible poverty in Khartoum slums or in makeshift camps across the country, with little opportunity to re-build their lives.
We must prevent displacement from occurring, and end it as quickly as possible. On the preventive front, countless lives can be saved by simple actions such as flood-proofing coastlines, or strengthening earthquake codes for hospitals and schools. Countries like Bangladesh and Mozambique have proven that disaster risk reduction and preparedness can be a life-saving investment.
In conflict situations, preventing displacement primarily requires political will. Those who forcibly displace civilians in violation of international law must be held accountable in order to deter others in the future. States that are not involved in the conflict are also required to uphold the rights of the displaced, including the right to return to their homes wherever possible, and this must be addressed in peace agreements and enforced in peacekeeping mandates.
So here’s the bottom line: conflicts will continue and natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity. Addressing the root causes and reducing the impact of displacement should start by heeding victims’ voices – their needs and wishes must be understood and their rights respected.
The international community can help. But national authorities must lead. Ten years after the Guiding Principles were signed, the time for excuses and inaction has run out.