Beginning to Resolve Displacement

Addressing the issues of displaced persons starts not by envisioning an ending point for those no longer living in their homes, but instead by understanding the mobile nature of displacement and empowering those affected.

Internally displaced people, who fled from Idlib, ride on a pick up truck with their belongings in Azaz, Syria, Feb. 15, 2020. Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

From 2010 to 2018, the number of people internally displaced (IDPs) in their country of origin due to conflict and generalized violence nearly doubled from 27.5 million to 41.3 million. This is the highest number ever recorded. In 2018 alone, 10.8 million people were displaced by conflict and violence, with exposure to natural disasters and sudden onset hazards resulting in a further 17.2 million new displacements in the same year.

Globally, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region hosts some of the largest numbers of IDPs. As of 2018, around 11 million people were estimated to be living in internal displacement in the region, representing more than a quarter of the global stock. If combined, IDPs across MENA would comprise a city population larger than that of Bogota or Paris. Against a backdrop of deteriorating peace, climate change, and increasing natural hazards, displacement has become a defining regional challenge, testing the relevance of international policy architecture to provide humane and dignified support.

The situation is stark.

Ongoing violence, conflict, and disasters have locked two-thirds of displaced people in protracted situations for more than three years. On average, countries with conflict-related displacements have reported IDP data for periods of longer than twenty-three years. Additionally, as of 2014, around fifty countries were hosting populations that experienced internal displacement for more than ten years.

The MENA region is no exception to this trend, with most displacements in the region driven by protracted conflict. Syria’s ten-year civil war alone continues to drive some of the world’s largest population movements, with an estimated 6.7 million IDPs as of March 2020, with more than half of IDP families displaced for more than five years. Parallel to this, 61 percent of the 1.7 million IDPs in Iraq have been displaced for more than three years as of November 2018 (note: the number of IDPs in Iraq as of February 2020 is estimated to be 1.3 million).

Evolving Solutions to Displacement

The international community and governments around the world ground their efforts to resolve internal displacement in an approach referred to as “durable solutions”. A durable solution for those that are internally displaced is achieved when they no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement. The Framework on Durable Solutions produced by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) provides necessary benchmarks to measure whether progress toward durable solutions has been achieved and defines when displacement is “resolved”.

Eight key criteria determine the extent to which a durable solution is achieved for IDPs including access to i) long-term safety, security and freedom of movement; ii) adequate standard of living, including at a minimum access to adequate food, water, housing, healthcare and basic education; iii) employment and livelihoods; iv) effective mechanisms that restore their housing, land, and property or provide them with compensation; v) necessary personal and other documentation; vi) voluntary reunification with family members separated during displacement; vii) participation in public affairs at all levels on an equal basis with the resident population; and, viii) effective remedies for displacement-related violations, including access to justice, reparations, and information about the causes of violations.

Yet, despite benchmarks for durable solutions that center on the recuperation of rights, the achievement of a durable solution is often measured in terms of three types of movement: sustainable reintegration at the place of origin (voluntary return with safety and dignity), local integration in areas where displaced persons take refuge with full knowledge and agreement of the hosting community (local integration), or in another part of the country based on their choice and informed decision (settlement elsewhere).

It has become increasingly clear that most patterns of displacement, that are by default complex, do not lend themselves to resolution through the three conventional outcomes often pursued under the durable solutions approach—return, local integration, or relocation—and that the resolution of displacement is not an explicit event, but rather a process. During 2018, only 2.3 million IDPs returned to their areas of origin from a total of more than 41 million internally displaced persons, which includes more than 28 million new displacements from conflict and disaster for 2018 alone. Many of these returned to areas destroyed by conflict, with no basic services and heightened levels of insecurity. Evidence of complete fulfillment of rights as predicated by the eight criteria or a successful resolution of displacement through relocation and reintegration is also not available, with a variety of factors often impeding the successful implementation of these approaches.

With rates of internal displacement outpacing the numbers of people achieving durable solutions, we must strengthen our understanding of the changing needs and socioeconomic vulnerabilities of displaced people beyond the immediacy of their initial displacement. This requires a spectrum of approaches, including, among others, acknowledgment of the dynamic mobility strategies adopted by IDPs to navigate the resolution of their displacement and ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to avoid harm.

Redefining the Value of Mobility

At its core, the approach is limited by a fixation with an end to mobility and the assumption that displaced populations will settle at a fixed end point—whether this be through returning to IDP’s place of origin, local integration, or settling in another location. Yet, we operate in a global context where people are more mobile than ever, and displaced communities are not an exception to this growing phenomenon.

Much like someone who moves to access new opportunities in a different city, IDPs, in the evolving context of their displacement, can leverage mobility to improve their situation when possible and needed. To disregard this negates the agency, aspirations, and preferences of displaced people simply because of their context, something that becomes even more damaging in protracted periods. Acknowledging this—while recognizing displaced individuals continue to experience heightened vulnerabilities due to their displacement—we must revise our approaches to keep pace with the global mobility landscape.

Looking at protracted situations there is a continuum and range of both forced and intentional mobility. From the forced side, this includes recurring and secondary displacement due to deteriorating security or new threats and violence in areas where IDPs found refuge. From the more intentional side, changes in access to livelihoods, education, and services, alongside other demographic factors like marriages or family reunification, can stimulate large movements across the country; micro-movements within urban areas from one residence to another; as well as temporary returns to areas of origin of one of all members of the family. Technological innovations have compounded this trend, with expanded access to information and social networks enabling greater levels of mobility. This enhances, for example, access to information pre-migration, while providing real-time access to news on key events during journeys and in destination locations. It also facilitates the transfer of remittances and supports the maintenance of critical communal and familial contentions; all of which can inform and alter mobility decisions. Combined, the above continues to drive more movement than ever before, with people leveraging wider patterns of mobility at the local, regional, and global level to access protection, assistance, and livelihoods, and ultimately transition toward self-reliance and through life phases. Ignoring the reality of greater mobility risks undermining a variety of opportunities that could sustainably resolve or make progress toward ending displacement.

To quote emeritus professor of refugee studies at Oxford University Roger Zetter, from a 2016 International Organization for Migration (IOM) blogpost concerning durable solutions for refugees and IDPs, the current markers of durability are rarely achieved and preoccupation with a “finite” solution has proven too inflexible to respond to the complex realities of protracted and large-scale displacement. This reinforces the relevance of the durable solutions concept; however, it also underscores the need to reflect on its practicality and applicability in today’s displacement settings; and, broaden our response toolkit to better address the complex operational realities.

Mobility as a Pathway to Self-Reliance

While it is important to acknowledge that displacement can amplify vulnerability and forced mobility—including family separation, trafficking and smuggling among other negative byproducts of displacement—when confronted with immediate danger, mobility is often employed as a lifesaving strategy by those who can afford to move. In these cases, mobility should be enhanced, not restricted.

The mixed methods IOM–Georgetown University longitudinal study “Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq”, which interviewed repeatedly 3,900 Iraqi IDP families between 2014 and 2019 living outside camps in the governorates of Baghdad, Basrah, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah, reinforces this message, demonstrating that displacement was itself used as an effective protection strategy, with most IDPs feeling more secure in their location of displacement than in their areas of origin.

The study also indicates that mobility is a key livelihood strategy for displaced communities, thereby a means to recuperate IDP’s right to employment and livelihoods. It offers a means to deal with both the causes and consequences of displacement and provides an opportunity to preserve or increase available resources, access support, and rebuild skills and assets. Identifying and maintaining livelihood opportunities represents a major challenge for displaced populations. Many flee their areas of origin with little advance notice and are therefore unable to plan for the move.

Similar livelihood-driven mobility was also identified in another research project in Iraq in 2018. The study showed that a lack of livelihood opportunities in places of origin compared to locations of displacement also influences mobility decisions. Twenty one percent of IDPs surveyed noted a lack of income-generating activities in the place of origin as one of three reasons for not planning to return in the next year. Furthermore, a portion of the sample population also employed movement—not including return to areas with limited income-generation opportunities—as a strategy to improve living conditions.

Talking to this point, Mohammed Afar (note: names of all IDPs referenced in the article have been changed to protect individual identities), an Iraqi displaced from Mosul, said, “I cannot return home because everything is destroyed. I was living in Kirkuk for a few years, but job opportunities in Kirkuk are few, and it became hard to provide for my family because of lack of assistance and work. I moved to Erbil in 2018 and got a much better job as a tour guide with one of the tourism companies in Erbil, in addition to my job as a taxi driver. I work two jobs for fifteen hours a day, but at least I now have work.” IOM’s “Movers in Displacement” Report, published in 2019, suggests the reasons for continued mobility following initial displacement are closely interlinked, with IDPs moving for livelihoods, housing, and to reconnect with family members.

These complex mobility patterns are echoed in other locations, including Sudan where IDPs have been seen to return seasonally to their areas of origin in periods of relative stability to tend to their crops during harvest. For example, in the case of Otash Village, South Darfur, even though the security situation improved, some households only returned to the village during the farming season and subsequently left for urban settings and surrounding IDP camps to access additional basic services and support.

This all points to the increasingly complex mobility dynamicsin and around settlement sites and communities of return, with regular and seasonal movements between places of residence and farming areas, as well as movements to navigate volatile security situations. Sudan—as is the case with many other countries—demonstrates that individuals who are displaced will also often return to places where they can protect their assets and properties, and access basic services or livelihood activities such as land for cultivation, despite security concerns.

Preexisting social and cultural ties also affect the mobility decisions of IDPs. With displacement forcing people to redefine personal, socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic boundaries, it represents a significant source of stress and trauma for the individual, the family, and the communities involved. Left unaddressed, this can inhibit physical health, work, and relationships which in turn undermines resilience and prevents the resolution of displacement for decades. Enabling IDP mobility to areas where they can access preexisting social networks and culturally specific support systems is critical in enhancing psychosocial wellbeing and resolving displacement situations.

The IOM—Georgetown Iraq study supports the idea that improved mobility can help improve the lives of displaced peoples by showing that preexisting connections and shared histories impact relocation decisions and perceptions of security and safety. Over a quarter of IDPs in Kirkuk came from another area of Kirkuk, and thus tended to feel safer because they counted themselves “as among the people of Kirkuk”. IDPs in Basrah followed a similar pattern, with a sense of belonging and family ties in the area positively impacting people’s sense of safety and security.

By understanding these mobility dynamics alongside social and cultural dynamics, we are better positioned to incorporate the preferences and needs of affected populations into the design of assistance, and will support a diversified approach aimed at recuperation of rights that were compromised by the initial displacement.

When to Stop Counting

With communities adopting a range of strategies and a continuum of mobility to resolve displacement, policy makers and practitioners must also standardize an approach for establishing when displacement “ends”. Despite the acceptance of the definition in the IASC Framework for Durable Solutions, the decision to classify individuals as having achieved durable solutions and remove them from the IDP caseload remains inconsistent and, sometimes, politically influenced. This issue is further amplified by a lack of data as well as inconsistent methodologies for data collection and analysis resulting in conflicting estimations for IDP stocks.In this context, it is critical to emphasize that thephysical movement of return or relocation does not constitute the end of displacement and that a statistical measure is insufficient to capture if an individual or group had met a durable solution in line with Principle 29 of the 1998 UN Commission on Human Rights Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Critically, this principle notes that IDPs who have returned to their homes or places of habitual residence or who have resettled in another part of the country shall not be discriminated against as a result of their having been displaced and shall have access to the right to participate fully and equally in public affairs at all levels and have equal access to public services.

Data remains an important tool to inform public policy not only if collected in a standard and comparable way, but also if is appropriately analyzed and understood. This requires the collection of comprehensive, long-term datasets to better understand the root causes and triggers of displacement as well as the mobility patterns, preferences, and concerns of affected populations. Through this, we can determine when a displaced person has reached a threshold of self-reliance or resilience on the pathway to a durable solution.

Without this, we will remain limited in our capacities to factor the needs, preferences, and mobility realities of affected populations into the response architecture and policies. This can undermine the delivery of appropriate assistance and may lead to the tool rather than the context defining the response.

Responding to modern displacement contexts requires practitioners to understand mobility dimensions and leverage them to increase self-reliance. This necessitates a shift from viewing displaced populations as “out of place” toward seeing the opportunities presented by mobility. As Georgetown professor Elizabeth Ferris pointed out in 2018, “Self-reliance is only a partial solution…. Nonetheless, given today’s realities, it is an important tool,” and data on mobility patterns can only increase our understanding of the range of strategies and positive coping mechanisms employed by displaced people. By acknowledging the diverse mobility dynamics that occur during and after displacement, we will get closer to enhancing the capacity of individuals and communities to cope, adapt, and recover from the shocks experienced through their displacement.

The criticality of this work cannot be overstated. When too little is done to address the root causes of displacement, and where inadequate attention is paid to the complex, fragile, and fraught process of tackling displacement, the possibility for renewed tensions, conflict, and eventually secondary displacement will persist. Moreover, the affected communities we serve will remain locked in cycles of displacement with deep human, economic, and political ramifications impacting communities, countries, and regions.

Speaking on the strength and aspirations of displaced populations, Anais, an IDP living in Basrah, Iraq said, “My dreams are to see my children get advanced degrees and not have to face the wars and displacement that we have faced. … I will not compromise at all on this dream. I did not submit to ISIS, I did not give up when I was displaced, and I will not give up now. I have worked, day and night, for the sake of providing for the needs of my children, and I will continue to do so until they achieve their vision of success in the future.”

Without reflection on how we can adopt a mobility lens to inform our approaches to resolving the vulnerabilities of displacement, we may limit our capacity to best serve people like Anais. Again, this requires us to further reflect on and deepen our understanding of the dynamic mobility strategies adopted by IDPs to navigate the resolution of their displacement.

This article was prepared by the authors in their personal capacities. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views, official policy, or position of the International Organization for Migration, The UN Migration Agency, or Georgetown University.

David Arnold serves as the Regional Emergency and Post-Crisis Office for the International IOM Regional Office in the Middle East and North Africa Region. He has worked in international affairs for the United Nations and private sector companies in conflict-affected settings including Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Read More
Lorenza Rossi is coordinator of the regional data and research unit at the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) regional office in the Middle East and North Africa. She has worked on data and internal displacement and published multiple reports and academic papers on Internally Displaced Persons and access to durable solutions. Read More
Grace Benton has worked in direct refugee services, designed and conducted qualitative research projects across the Middle East as a researcher with Georgetown University, and published numerous journal articles and policy briefs on forced displacement. Read More
Nina Stuurman is the Regional Emergency and Post Crisis Specialist for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Before joining the IOM regional office in Cairo, she worked on displacement, including durable solutions in Iraq, Central African Republic, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe. On Twitter: @StuurmanNina. Read More