Internally displaced people need more protection: insights from Africa

Residents of Sake in the Democratic Republic of Congo leave their homes to avoid clashes between rebels and government forces. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

New figures show that more than 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide – that’s the highest figure ever recorded. Of these, more than 41.3 million are internally displaced. This means that more than two out of three displaced people are not refugees, but remain within their own country. Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, asked Carolien Jacobs to give insights into their lives and what can be done to support them.

In Africa, where can most internally displaced people be found and what’s driving the numbers?

About 10 million of the world’s 41.3 million internally displaced people are based in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s more than any other region.

A recently released United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report shows that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Ethiopia and Nigeria are the African countries with the highest numbers of internally displaced people. Of the 10 countries worldwide with the highest numbers of displaced people, seven are African countries; Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen are the non-African countries.

The reasons for internal displacement vary from country to country, but violence is a common factor.

In the DRC, displacement is triggered by many different ongoing conflicts. It’s hard to be sure of the exact number, but between 3 and 4.5 million Congolese were displaced at the end of 2018.

In Somalia, armed conflict and food insecurity (because people can’t grow their food or have their crops taken) are common causes of displacement. Ethiopia saw a remarkably high increase of 2.9 million newly displaced people in 2018, caused mostly by inter and intra-communal violence along the borders of the Oromia region.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, new displacement took place mostly in the marginalised north-east of the country due to the further rise of Boko Haram. Other causes of displacement in other parts of the country are related to competition between pastoralists and farmers, criminal violence, and flooding.

What are the biggest challenges facing these people?

Apart from insecurity, the biggest concerns of displaced people are to find shelter, find ways to make a living, access basic services – such as health care and education – and to become locally accepted.

In our research, which looked at the security and justice consequences of forced migration in eastern Congo, we saw that for many people displacement is not a once in a lifetime event. It’s something they experience repeatedly: when the security situation improves, they return. When it deteriorates, they move to a different place. This means that they have to rebuild their lives over and over again.

In situations where the root causes of displacement are not (or cannot be) addressed, the two most viable options are resettlement to another location (usually with support of UNHCR, but only available for a very limited number of people) or local integration. For the UN, the situation is solved either when a person successfully and safely returns, resettles or integrates locally.

But, from our research, we saw that the main challenge displaced people faced was finding a safe place to stay.

Many displaced people don’t usually live in displacement camps, but are found in host communities. In DRC’s South Kivu province for instance, though there are close to half a million internally displaced people, no camps exist. A small number of South Kivu’s internally displaced people reside in one of the camps in North Kivu province, where camps are more common. This is not unusual. Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, hosts about 600 000 of the country’s 1.1 million internally displaced people.

They may initially be hosted by relatives or other members from their home community, but eventually need to find their own place to rent which means they need some income to pay the costs.

This becomes the next challenge. People usually find work through their networks, but many won’t have enough contacts.

How do their experiences differ from those of refugees?

On paper, it could be argued that internally displaced people have an “easier life” than refugees: they have citizenship (and rights that are connected to this) of the country in which they are displaced and should therefore enjoy their rights in the same way as other citizens. They don’t need to go through registration processes or asylum procedures and can move more freely.

But they’re usually in countries where the state can’t provide them a basic level of security. This is problematic because the rights of internally displaced people are less protected than those of refugees. Whereas refugees are often entitled to humanitarian aid and access to basic services (depending on country of refuge the support obviously differs greatly), internally displaced people are largely left to fend for themselves.

Refugees are generally protected through a number of international and national legal instruments – starting with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. There are no global legally binding instruments to protect internally displaced people. In 2001 – 50 years after the Refugee Convention – the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were adopted, but they are guiding, rather than binding.

In Africa some steps have been taken towards their protection, in particular the African Union’s 2009 Kampala Convention.

This makes it easier to hold nation states accountable and enforce protection regimes, but international actors are often reluctant to intervene in a country’s internal affairs, arguing that this could infringe on the sovereignty of the state.

What can be done to support them?

Internally displaced people need to be formally registered. Without registration they won’t be on the radar of authorities or humanitarian aid actors. Because they’re not in displacement camps it’s important to know who they are, and where they are, so that they can receive support.

People who manage to rebuild their lives – to find a proper house, a stable job, send their children to school – are the ones that are able to make use of their social connections through family, church, or a shared origin. But building and strengthening these connections isn’t always easy. It could therefore be worthwhile to help people in becoming better connected by facilitating meetings.