With tragic photos of bodies on beaches surfacing in the news, the refugee crisis seems to be concentrated at the borders of Europe and the United States. But the desperate exiles who have fled to the West actually represent a minority who have managed to make it across borders. Most of the world’s refugees are not even officially labeled as such by international standards.
From New Orleans to Bangladesh, millions of people have been forced out of their homes without crossing an international border. They’re labeled “internally displaced people,” and international humanitarian laws grant them virtually no protection, despite the fact that they often live under worse conditions than global refugees.
Globally and internally displaced populations overlap heavily, but the plight of “IDPs” is often overlooked because they are rarely counted. Fresh research by the International Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) attempts to track this massive, floating demographic by curating international and national data sets: More than 40 million people were internally displaced as of late 2016, with three-quarters of them having fled home in the past year. The chief causes were environmental disasters such as storms and floods, while conflicts and violence triggered about 7 million forced migrations.
Violence-driven internal migration is concentrated in war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with about 920,000 displacements, followed by Afghanistan, with 652,000. But below the media radar, internal communal violence has displaced many communities—even in relatively “stable” countries like India and the Philippines, where conflict displaced more than 800,000 people combined. (Nonetheless, the overall rate of displacement is more intense when viewed in the context of DRC and Afghanistan’s relatively smaller populations.)
The emerging data on IDP flows expose how international humanitarian law offers only a partial solution to a global displacement crisis that transcends nation-state boundaries. Refugee law emerged as a political response to modern warfare, as a way to provide temporary relief to victims of turmoil and political repression. While international refugees are afforded certain legal protections (like the right to claim asylum in the court system of their host country, or to access humanitarian aid like emergency shelter and medical care), IDPs are generally subject to domestic laws, and often live under oppressive regimes with policies that forced them to migrate in the first place. A lack of relief at home is a key factor that drives international refugee migration, whether inside a given region or from Global South to North. Moreover, the IDMC notes, “the exact push and pull factors that explain how someone who is an IDP one day can become a refugee, an asylum seeker or an international migrant the next are still unclear.”