The refugee crisis you don’t see: 29 million people displaced in their own countries


Internally displaced women in Agok, Sudan carry a ration of food aid. (UN Photo/Tim McKulka)

The world is experiencing its worst refugee crisis in nearly 20 years, according to a new U.N. report. Most of the growth is among internally displaced people, or IDPs, who face many of the same problems as refugees who flee their country for another, without the benefit of an international sanctuary.

(UNHCR)
(UNHCR)

IDPs aren't always as visible as refugees, perhaps because their growing numbers don't swell international camps or burden neighboring countries. But, as the chart to the left illustrates, refugee numbers have mostly stayed stable over the past five years, despite devastating conflicts in Syria, Mali and the Congo. It’s the number of IDPs that continues to grow year-over-year: up to 17.7 million in 2012, from 15.5 million the year before. Some estimates put that number even higher -- the International Displacement Monitoring Centre cites 28.8 million IDPs in 2012, its highest ever recorded.

The largest share are in Colombia, where gangs and armed paramilitary groups have forced people from their homes for decades, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria and South Sudan. In Syria alone, there were more than 2 million Syrians living like refugees inside the country’s borders -- a five-fold increase from the year before, per the IDMC.

All displaced people are vulnerable. But internally displaced people can face particular challenges, advocates say, because they often depend primarily on their own government for support, even when that government is the thing displacing them. And international aid groups that work with IDPs often have to go through national governments to get help to the displaced.

An April report by the IDMC complained, for instance, that the Syrian government authorized only a handful of humanitarian groups to work with the internally displaced -- and that those groups distributed less aid in areas controlled by Kurds and Syrian rebels. The report also found the Syrian government forcibly expelled people sheltering in public schools. It concludes:

Most [Syrian] IDPs have received very little or no assistance, in part because aid has become a deeply divisive issue, politicised by parties to the conflict as they compete for control of territory.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the U.N. has gotten better at helping IDPs. Currently, the organization’s human rights wing coordinates with other humanitarian groups to provide shelter and protection for the internally displaced. And the African Union -- where almost a third of the world’s IDPs live, according to the IDMC -- recently passed a major convention that forces signees to work IDP protections into their national laws.

Unfortunately, that's unlikely to help in places like Syria, where, per a Brookings Institute estimate, more than a quarter of the population is displaced. The only solution there, Brookings' analyst Megan Bradley wrote in an op-ed last week, is more money, greater access and increased security for humanitarian efforts -- a familiar wish list for aid groups, regardless of the type of refugee they serve.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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