Just like refugees and asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs) may flee due to war, violence, persecution, or natural disasters, and face devastating hardships due to displacement. IDPs leave their homes, but they stay in their home country.

By the end of 2016, there were 40.3 million IDPs worldwide, nearly twice the number of refugees. The majority of IDPs are women and children (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 remain closer to conflict zones than refugees and have extremely high rates of malnutrition and death.

Top Ten Largest IDP Populations

These conditions are especially dangerous for IDPs. They do not cross an internationally recognized border, so they are deprived of the same rights and protections international law gives to refugees. Instead, IDPs fall under the protection of their own national government, which has likely failed them or caused their displacement in the first place. Despite this failure, other national governments and international institutions continue to show an unwillingness or inability to intervene due to respect for the principle of sovereignty.

Since 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. This powerful international norm asserts that states have a right to govern themselves without interference from other countries or organizations like the United Nations.

A related, modern norm called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) attempts to reconcile this principle of sovereignty with the promotion of human rights. R2P emerged out of the international failure to prevent the Rwandan Genocide and was adopted by the world’s governments in 2005. Under R2P, a state is considered responsible for protecting its citizens from external and internal threats. If it fails to do so, then the responsibility falls to other countries. Many argue this norm could justify the intervention of outside actors claiming to act on behalf of IDPs.

Though no treaty protects IDPs under international law, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued its thirty Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998. The principles draw on international human rights norms and analogies to refugee law and address a range of issues, such as freedom of movement, the right to education, and prohibitions on child soldiers.

Internally Displaced Persons

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