Internally Displaced Persons: Migrants Who Do Not Cross a National Border
What happens to people who are forced from their homes but remain inside their own country?
Just like refugees and asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs) flee due to war, violence, persecution, or natural disasters, and face devastating hardships due to displacement. IDPs leave their homes. But unlike refugees, they stay in their home country—often remaining close to conflict zones.
By the end of 2019, there were forty-six million IDPs worldwide—nearly twice the number of refugees. IDPs are an especially vulnerable group because they don’t have the same protections as refugees, even though they move for many of the same reasons refugees do. Women and children often make up the majority of the IDP populations (some estimates are as high as 80 percent), and IDPs disproportionately come from already marginalized groups such as minority ethnic groups and indigenous populations. They often have extremely high rates of malnutrition and death, and are more vulnerable to human trafficking.
Why are conditions so dangerous for IDPs?
Because IDPs do not cross an internationally recognized border, international law does not apply to them, depriving IDPs of the same rights and protections international law gives to refugees. Instead, IDPs fall under the laws of their own national government, which has likely failed them or caused their displacement in the first place.
Meanwhile, other national governments and international institutions are unable or unwilling to intervene out of respect for the principle of sovereignty: the powerful international norm that asserts that states have a right to govern themselves without interference from other countries or organizations like the United Nations. Because IDPs still reside within their home country’s borders, attempts by foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations, or nongovernmental organizations to intervene on behalf of IDPs could be interpreted as a violation of sovereignty.
In addition, no treaty protects IDPs under international law. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued thirty Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998, based on human rights norms and refugee law. These principles address a range of issues, such as freedom of movement, right to education, and prohibitions on child soldiers, but as guidance, they do not have the force of a treaty.
Responsibility to protect: Promoting human rights while respecting sovereignty
After international governments failed to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide, world leaders promoted a new norm called the responsibility to protect (R2P), which attempts to reconcile the principle of sovereignty with the protection of human rights. Under the idea of R2P, a country is responsible for protecting its citizens from external and internal threats. If it fails to do so, then the responsibility falls to other countries. Today, many policymakers argue that this norm could justify intervening on behalf of IDPs whose home-country governments are failing them.