International Committee of the Red Cross

Internally displaced people

Article 01 April 2018

The ICRC's long-standing work addressing internal displacement globally is guided by our mandate to protect the lives and dignity of people affected by armed conflict and other violence. We focus on helping internally displaced people meet their specific needs, in addition to addressing the negative consequences of their displacement on host communities and supporting those who are at risk of displacement.

The ICRC’s response to internal displacement

Understanding the experiences of internally displaced people

The displacement of millions of people within the borders of their country, whether due to natural disasters, armed conflict or other situations of violence, has become a pressing global concern. It disrupts lives, threatens communities and affects countries as a whole, resulting in serious humanitarian, social and economic concerns.

Displacement is often a survival mechanism, when fleeing is the only resort people have in order to avoid imminent danger or hardship. However, displacement also tends to make people vulnerable, often exacerbating the difficulties they already face as a result of the surrounding armed conflict or violence. Internally displaced people are torn away from their usual surroundings and social support networks. Families are often ripped apart and relatives may be killed or go missing during flight. The loss of income, possessions and official documents leaves internally displaced people unable to meet even their most basic needs in a predictable way or access basic services. Some of them may resort to desperate measures – such as child labour, prostitution, selling their assets, or moving back to dangerous areas – to survive. Housing is often hard to secure, especially if they are not welcome in their new place of arrival or they cannot afford renting accommodation. As displacement becomes protracted, the uncertainty about the future and whether they will be able to return or find another lasting solution to their plight, increases people’s hardship. Tensions with the host community over scarce resources and overstretched services can result in stigma, further insecurity and renewed displacement.

People’s experience of displacement changes over time. Newly displaced people may face physical threats and lack basic necessities. Those who have been displaced for longer need health care, education, suitable housing and access to livelihood and employment opportunities so they can recover their independence and regain some normality in their lives. Furthermore, everyone experiences displacement differently. Factors such as gender, age or disability can put a strain on how people cope with displacement. For example, internally displaced women and girls are often at heightened risk of sexual violence and exploitation. Children are particularly vulnerable to forced recruitment, especially those living in camps infiltrated by armed groups, or may face barriers in accessing education as a consequence of displacement. Considering the diversity of those who are displaced, as well as their changing circumstances, is critical to defining suitable responses and working towards lasting solutions.

 Our approach

The ICRC’s longstanding work addressing internal displacement around the world is guided by our mandate to protect the lives and dignity of people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. We see internal displacement as a process consisting of different phases (from pre-displacement to acute and stable displacement through to achieving durable solutions) whose impact reaches well beyond the displaced people themselves. Our response focuses on helping internally displaced people meet their specific needs – either directly or by engaging with authorities and other actors – while also addressing the negative consequences of their displacement on the host families and host communities. Because we understand that every displaced person and host community has different needs, and that such needs are often multifaceted and interrelated, our work is guided by both assistance and protection. We combine emergency assistance and initial recovery efforts, trying to balance short-term with longer-term action. We seek to engage with IDPs and host communities in a variety of different ways to discuss their concerns, understand their priorities, identify initiatives they may have developed to cope with displacement, and receive feedback on activities implemented to support them, with the aim to ensure their meaningful involvement in our programmes.

Whenever possible, we also seek to prevent displacement from occurring in the first place by addressing some of its causes. In armed conflicts, ensuring that all parties – State and non-state actors alike – abide by international humanitarian law (IHL), notably the rules protecting civilians from the effects of hostilities, can help reduce displacement. We try to do so through bilateral dialogue and training, and by providing legal advice on the domestic implementation of IHL. Supporting resident communities by ensuring their access to basic services, maintaining critical infrastructure during protracted armed conflict and building their resilience can also help people to avoid displacement.

We remind the authorities of their primary responsibility to protect and help internally displaced people under their jurisdiction, providing additional expertise and support where it is needed, for example, on the adoption of national laws and policies to guide the government’s response on internal displacement, as well as of concrete measures to improve the situation of those displaced. We also take part in regional and global forums on internal displacement, where we present our opinions and recommendations based on our first-hand experience in the field.

We seek to complement the efforts of other actors involved in the response. For instance, we usually help displaced people living outside of camps – in host communities, where the ICRC is better placed to work with IDPs and the local population, or in locations that other humanitarian actors cannot access.

Our response

The ICRC responds to internal displacement in a variety of ways, including:

  • helping communities at risk of displacement strengthen local early warning systems and prepare to flee (protecting their belongings, identifying safe escape routes, making sure they keep track of family members and personal documents);
  • helping family members stay in touch and reunite relatives who have become separated due to displacement;
  • distributing relief such as food, water, essential household items, shelter, seed and farming tools to newly arrived or returning displaced people;
  • providing livelihood support through microeconomic, agriculture and livestock initiatives to help internally displaced people recover their independence and rebuild their lives;
  • funding health centres, keeping water-supply networks running and maintaining other essential public services in host communities;
  • running mine awareness campaigns to keep internally displaced people safe on their return;
  • organizing information sessions (or use other means of communication, e.g. social media) so internally displaced people can understand their rights and find out about local services;
  • talking to authorities and non-state armed groups about their duty to prevent displacement, protect internally displaced people, and ensure they get the assistance they need;
  • raising awareness of the humanitarian consequences of the violence among armed forces and non-state armed groups and helping them comply with international humanitarian law and other bodies of law;
  • advising governments on the technical aspects of laws and policies to protect and help internally displaced people;
  • working with authorities to introduce procedures so that internally displaced people can get identity documents or other official papers;
  • engaging with other actors, based on their mandates and expertise, in order to find solutions to specific cases or problems affecting displaced communities.