Refugees in Their Own Homeland

There are now over 38 million displaced people who are trapped in their own countries by war and violence -- a new record. So why isn’t anyone helping them?


Let’s imagine for a moment, that in some massively devastating economic disaster, the entire population of Canada, roughly 35 million people, loses its jobs. The country’s infrastructure implodes — no functioning trains or reliable electricity — and then these people also lose their homes, their schools, and their belongings. Poverty begins to take root, and lines for food stretch around blocks. There’s a shortage of resources and shelter. Ensuing conflict erupts in a war, complete with bombs exploding overhead, snipers firing rifles, and soldiers going from house to house making arrests.

Clearly, it’s not safe to stay in Canada.

So now take lots of these millions of Canadians and move them across the border into the United States. Oh, wait — that’s not going to work (the United States doesn’t want millions of immigrants seeking asylum, does it?). Instead, picture these people fleeing to relatively safer areas within the country, building makeshift shelters out of tarps and cardboard in parks or renting rundown apartments with the little money they were able to take with them. And now, you can begin to imagine what it’s like for internally displaced people stuck within their own borders.

According to a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva, the number of people forced to flee their homes but remain within their own borders because of war and general violence was, as of the end of 2014, a record-breaking 38 million. During the past year alone, 11 million people were displaced. That’s 30,000 people per day.

On top of that, the report found that in 2014, in about 90 percent of the 60 countries IDMC monitors, people were living in protracted displacement (and bearing children into displacement) for a period of at least 10 years. And in most cases, these internal refugees are not perfectly welcomed within the communities to which they flee. They face long-term hardships like lack of access to health care, ethnic discrimination, trauma from what they’ve seen and fled, and an inability to find jobs.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced people are dependent on their governments, which are often themselves in turmoil and are either unable or unwilling to help, and are usually responsible for the displacement in the first place. (Think Syria.)

Displaced people are the unseen byproducts of war: Living beyond the reach of aid organizations or even protection of the Geneva Conventions, unlike refugees. Finally, however, with the new numbers from IDMC, we can measure and name the problem, and distinguish these lost millions’ plight from that of those who manage to make it to surrounding countries.

But considering the main drivers of war, which then leads to dislocation — as well as poverty and overall inequality — it’s hard to imagine how to truly help the ever-increasing number of IDPs who are stuck in a kind of purgatory that lasts … no one knows how long. “The problem is really so huge that no one knows where to start,” says Alexandra Bilak, one of the authors of the report.

Unlike in the past though, intricate country breakdowns show five countries that account for 60 percent of new displacement worldwide: Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, with Syria holding the largest number of IDPs in the world, at 7.6 million. We now know specifically where attention is needed. And we know the issue needs solving, the key to which, says the center, is to get people to sit up and finally see the problem — and then start coughing up funding.

“We are like the weathermen,” says Alfredo Zamudio, director of the IDMC. “We are telling people that it’s raining.”

Still, attention to the IDP crisis remains scant in international donor circles. People trapped within their own borders remain unseen by dominant donor countries, unlike the migrants who are drowning off the Italian coast or those queuing up at the Jordanian border.

Although if you were to ask “a Lebanese or a Syrian or an Ethiopian or a Sudanese they wouldn’t talk about a few thousand asylum seekers. They would talk about the millions of refugees and internally displaced people, and so should we,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that aids those affected by displacement and the umbrella group under which the IDMC operates. Then add on a term like “protracted displacement” and you have perhaps the most un-media-friendly story possible: people staying put. That doesn’t sell newspapers. Altogether, “IDPs have just become forgotten,” says Zamudio.

There is some good news, however, says Egeland, because mass displacement is a political problem (something Egeland calls “a cancer of international politics”), which means there are political solutions. While there are (unenforceable) guiding principles on internal displacement codified by the U.N. in 1998, it might be time for a new conversation on them.

“We need to get back to countries sitting down together and saying we have a common problem and we need to pull in the same direction,” he says. On the plus side, he points out that “there are many more nations and many more millionaires in many more countries that could invest in hope, and a fewer number of truly miserable places.”

Zamudio agrees, adding that, “there are good people in these governments trying to do the right thing.”

Egeland does, however, point his finger at countries that are not pulling their financial weight, and says they’re not just “the usual suspects.” He’s mainly critical of countries that have enough wealth to help, but choose not to: “How come three tiny Scandinavian countries can still be among the top 10 donors in the world? Where are all of the Asian tigers? Where are all of these incredibly oil-rich countries among donors?”

“All of those of us who are in the top 2 to 3 billion of the world population have more than enough to share. Much more.”

Beyond increasing funding, Egeland also says we need more “witnesses” — aid workers and journalists to take stock of the crisis working inside countries with large numbers of IDPs — inside Syria, inside Yemen, something that he recognizes as both costly and dangerous. He says much of the reason people are unable to go home during displacement is because of a “protection crisis.” That assistance may reach those in need, but does not provide protection. There needs to be “much more effective and coherent peacekeeping and diplomacy. Much more effective sanctions to award good behavior and punish bad behavior.” He specifies that he does not mean further military actions from the West. Instead, Egeland wants “more systematic possibilities for relocation of refugees in the areas of greatest tension,” he says. “It’s as easy and as difficult as that.”

For the 38 million people in this liminal state, life can be desperate, and the snail’s pace of action to help them devastating. Bilak describes an erosion of resilience when there is a long-term lack of support.

Consider just one example of someone living in dislocation. Pikas Kapi belongs to a family displaced by low-level conflict between Papua, New Guinea, and the Indonesian government that has been flaring since independence from the Dutch in 1962. He and his family have been in a care center for almost four years, “living in broken tents and with no one helping us,” he told the IDMC. “Life is very difficult, particularly for our children. Many are still traumatized by the fighting and don’t want to go back to school.” Many, Kapi says, become ill because they don’t get enough to eat and water quality is poor. “We have to hope for rain if we want to drink. … We feel abandoned.”

In some places, people are living for years away from their homes, forced to move over and over again as conflict comes nearer. A look at the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which has 2.8 million IDPs after 20 years of war, shows one of the most complex situations of displacement in the world, says Bilak, one in which people are exhausted from having to move so many times because of violence. They are forced to keep switching work to feed themselves; women who only know how to farm have to leave their fields because they are being raped, only to have to learn how to mine, where they are abused, only to have to accept that there is no easy place or life for them.

For Bilak, the answer to ending mass internal displacement, especially the protracted kind, is to shift thinking from classifying it as a short-term humanitarian crisis to an entrenched development issue. “We need to bridge the relief to development gap,” she says. But with an ironic laugh she adds, “I don’t think anyone really knows how to do that.”

Looking closely at stories like Kapi’s should be enough to move hearts to give money to assist with resettlement, peacekeeping, job training, etc. But since that hasn’t been enough to make change thus far, Egeland has other incentives to draw donors.

“It’s not just because of our ideals we should care,” he says. “It’s because it’s in our interests too. If we take millions and millions of teenagers in and around Syria and we say, ‘No, we will not give you an education nor a job nor a future,’ would we still expect them to be moderate and well-behaving and never flirt with extremism or join terrorist groups?”

“Of course they will be angry,” Egeland says. “And of course they can be recruited in all sorts of directions. So we have to invest in hope.”

It’s as easy and as difficult as that.


Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321