Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are those forced to leave their homes but who do not cross international borders. As a practical matter, they are largely devoid of the protections accorded by international law and UN agencies to refugees—persons with a well-founded fear of persecution based on ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, and other criteria that is defined by international protocols. IDPs by contrast, are the responsibility of the country in which they reside and hold citizenship. In poor countries, the material conditions of IDP’s may be worse than refugees, who are eligible for international assistance.
In 2012, member states of the African Union signed the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (IDMC). This is the world’s only protocol that binds governments legally to protect the rights and well-being of IDPs. However, because of a lack of state capacity, persistent internal conflict, and poverty, too often this protocol remains only aspirational.
Due to the fact that IDPs do not cross international borders and are often found in remote areas, their numbers are difficult to determine. Perhaps the best, readily available source are the reports of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The organizations concluded that at the end of 2016, there were 12.6 million African IDPs. They have just released a new report on the plight of IDPs in Africa. The new report concludes that in the first six months of 2017, an additional 2.7 million people have been internally displaced. Of those, almost half are in two countries: just under one million people became internally displaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and just over two hundred thousand in the Central African Republic. These figures represent significant increases from recent years.
Most of the time, internal displacement is not the result of natural disasters. The IDMC and the NRC conclude that conflicts caused 75 percent of new displacements so far in 2017, up from 70 percent in 2016. The primary driver of internal displacement is politics in the context of poor governance.
The Norwegian Refugee Council established the IDMC in 1998. Its headquarters is in Geneva. It is funded mostly by the Scandinavian states, the United Kingdom, the United States (through USAID), Australia, and various international agencies and non-governmental organizations. Its data is the gold standard when it comes to studying IDPs.