Displacement in times of armed conflict: How international humanitarian law protects in war and why it matters

The main purpose of the study is to draw attention to the key role that IHL plays in addressing displacement and to influence law and policymaking among States and international and multilateral organizations. This is the first instalment of IHL Impact, a series of research studies that draw on the organization’s unparalleled knowledge and resources to examine how IHL actually makes a difference on the ground.

The harrowing reality of displacement caused by armed conflict

Displacement is part and parcel of war and also one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. When people become displaced, their physical and mental health often suffers. They can lose their independence, be or feel unsafe, lack access to essential services and be at heightened risk of services and violence. Displacement affects host communities, too – especially if they are unprepared and lack the support they need. 



To which extent could international humanitarian law have an impact on displacement? The ICRC has carried out a research study to better understand the interaction between IHL and displacement.


How violence and IHL violations trigger displacement

  • While acts of violence affecting civilians may – though not always – constitute IHL violations, the report sets out many violations that directly or indirectly trigger displacement.
  • These violations can also generate pre-emptive displacement. Civilians have a long memory of IHL violations and are aware of the impact of these violations on others. They might likely anticipate them happening or happening again and choose preventive displacement.

Patterns of displacement

  • In some circumstances, if communities get the humanitarian assistance and protection they need locally, leaving may become less of a pressing necessity. Conversely, where IHL violations stifle humanitarian efforts, or sever the lifeline altogether, civilians may be forced to seek help elsewhere.
  • Sometimes, a single incident causes people to flee. In other cases, the build-up of violations over time brings about displacement. The intensity and types of violations also have a profound influence on how long people remain displaced, and on the circumstances of their displacement.

The question of return

Better respect for IHL mitigates the widespread damage to and destruction of civilian objects caused by war. IHL also prohibits the use of certain weapons and requires the parties to the conflict to clear, remove or destroy explosive remnants of war in territories under their control, after the cessation of hostilities and as soon as feasible, making the environment safer for returnees. As such, respect for IHL contributes to making return a genuine option for displaced people. In addition, the protection that IHL confers on civilians may contribute to the safety of returnees.

Key findings

  • Respect for IHL is one of several ways to address the causes of displacement.
  • Respect for IHL plays a decisive role in supporting humanitarian action and preventing people from becoming displaced in the first place.
  • Respect for IHL contributes to ensuring that people are protected during displacement.
  • Respect for IHL contributes to creating an environment conducive to safe and dignified returns.


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This study is the first of the ICRCs IHL Impact series. In this research series, evidence will be collected that showcases the actual impact of international humanitarian law during armed conflict on social, political and economic issues, such as human security, development and international relations. The IHL Impact project seeks to contribute to increased respect for the law by providing pragmatic arguments on how IHL can make a difference to the lives of people caught up in armed conflict. Combining empirical research with academic study and drawing on internal and external expertise, the project will examine the effects that arise from both respect for IHL and violations of IHL.