Internally Displaced Persons – the overlooked crisis

Internally Displaced Persons – the overlooked crisis
  • PublishedSeptember 22, 2019

In stark contrast to the constant supply of good news since reform-minded Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power last year, Ethiopia is, sadly, host to the world’s largest population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Tom Collins reports on this overlooked crisis.


In 2018, Ethiopia recorded the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide, according to a report by the International Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The report found that Ethiopia was home to 2.9m IDPs from a total of 28m new displacements across 148 countries.

Vastly outstripping its counterparts by over one million people, Ethiopia was followed by 1.9m IDPs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1.6m in Syria, 578,000 in Somalia and 541,000 in Nigeria.

Africa is therefore home to more IDPs than any other continent across the world.

While there are no sustainable development goal (SDG) targets or indicators specifically related to IDPs, many have called for their inclusion in the 2030 Agenda which promises to “leave no one behind”.

The International Peace Institute (IPI) released a brief late last year recommending that states with high levels of internal displacement address the needs of IDPs through their implementation of SDGs.

It also suggested that countries include information on IDPs in their voluntary national reviews (VNRs), which aim to report on the success or otherwise of the development goals.

The brief, entitled ‘Reaching Internally Displaced Persons to Achieve the 2030 Agenda’, recommends the need to understand international displacement as a long-term challenge that requires coordinated and complementary approaches by humanitarian and development actors.

Many of the 17 SDGs including ‘No Poverty’, ‘Zero Hunger’, ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ and ‘Quality Education’ cannot be achieved without an effective policy response to IDPs.

Africa is a mixed bag in that regard, with some clear examples of failure and success.

Forced returns

While Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed has been praised for introducing a progressive policy allowing refugees to obtain work permits, access primary education, obtain driving licenses, legally register births and marriages and access financial services such, his response to mounting internal displacement has been heavily criticised.

Since democratic reforms introduced by the Prime Minister last year have relaxed Ethiopia’s security apparatus and increased freedom of speech, Ethiopia has been rocked by inter-ethnic clashes among its 80 ethnic groups as grievances formed during the iron fist of the previous regime have come to the fore.

Despite breaking international humanitarian law which requires returns to be safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified, Abiy has responded to the IDP crisis by introducing forced returns.

The bulk of last year’s displacements occurred in West Guji in the Oromia region where 800,000 ethnic Gedeos fled following intercommunal clashes with Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

After mounting international attention compelled the government to intervene, the government forced the Gedeo community to return home through what it called “voluntary” returns.

A recent statement in parliament claims that 94% of these IDPs have since been returned.

Yet contrary to government claims, aid organisations say that some IDPs are living in makeshift shelters in areas of secondary displacement as they fear returning to their origin.

Though living conditions in the secondary displacement camps lack very little medical or food assistance, Felix Horne, Senior Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the government has pressured aid workers to offer assistance only at the original sites of displacement in order to incentivise the Gedeo population to return home.

Forced returns also do little to address the underlying causes of the displacement, which leads to a greater chance of the disruption repeating itself.

“It’s not going to go away,” says Horne.

“I’ve been quite disappointed about the lack of public pressure from diplomats about these forced returns. There haven’t been many which have spoken out publicly and critically about this. There will continue to be conflicts and IDP flows. The government watches how the international community has responded and they [the government] have largely gotten away with it.”

Ethiopia will co-convene the first Global Forum on Refugees in December, organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
in Geneva.

Mark Yarnell, senior advocate and UN liaison for Refugees International, doubts that Ethiopia’s IDP crisis will feature as a topic of discussion.

Instead, the focus will be on Ethiopia’s recently introduced progressive refugee law along with other attention-grabbing headlines, such as Abiy’s decision to plant 350m trees in 12 hours.

Effective framework

A mere 200 miles away, Uganda offers a counterexample of how to deal with an IDP crisis. 

Since a 2006 ceasefire agreement between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) brought to an end a low-level insurgency which had blighted northern Uganda since the late 1980s, the overwhelming majority of the 1.8m internally displaced people (IDPs) who lived in camps at the height of the crisis have returned to their areas of origin or resettled in new locations. 

In 2004, Uganda adopted a National Policy for Internally Displaced Persons, one of the first countries in the world to do so. The policy guaranteed IDPs the right not to be forcibly returned and to choose freely whether to return in safety or to settle in another part of the country.

This stance mirrors the recent adoption of a refugee policy which has been heralded as one of the most progressive in the world; guaranteeing freedom of movement and the right to employment, education and health, and the right to start a business.

The government also provides refugees with plots of land so they can farm and construct shelters.

Uganda is home to 1.2m refugees, the third-largest number in the world after Turkey and Pakistan, with most arrivals coming from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Building on the 2004 IDP framework, the government launched the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), which aimed to bring the socio-economic indicators in northern Uganda in line with national standards in order to encourage permanent resettlement in areas which had been devastated by conflict.

The PRDP had four strategic objectives: consolidation of state authority, rebuilding and empowering communities, revitalisation of the economy, and peace building and reconciliation.

The total estimated three-year budget of the PRDP was $606m.

According to IDMC statistics, Uganda had 32,000 IDPs in 2018, which shows a marked and permanent reduction from the 1.8m over a decade ago. 

Written By
Tom Collins

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