More than 31 million people were internally displaced due to conflict and disasters in 2016, but the issue has been overshadowed by the focus on refugees and migrants, according to a report by a monitoring group.
The Global Report on Internal Displacement by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found that on average, one person was forced to flee every second in 2016, a trend it called a “horrific” new level of displacement.
Disasters displaced three times more people than conflicts, with most of the 24 million people affected by sudden-onset weather hazards such as floods, storms, wildfires and severe winter conditions.
In total, 31.1 million new cases of internal displacements were reported in 125 countries last year.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with 922,000 new displacements in 2016, topped the list of countries where this displacement was driven by conflict while 7,434,000 people in China were forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters.
But despite the increasing numbers of the internally displaced people (IDPs), their plight was being overshadowed and becoming difficult to place on the international agenda, according to the IDMC.
“Absolutely, that’s one of our main regrets [IDP issue being overlooked],” Alexandra Bilak, IDMC director, told Al Jazeera.
“Internal displacement is a politically sensitive issue. Refugees and migrants are driven by the fact that they arrive in Europe and put themselves on the radar screens of international and western policymakers. It is a visible phenomenon.”
More aid was spent last year on refugee resettlement than in the countries where the crises began, said the IDMC.
“The IDPs are behind the sovereignty of a country’s border and are far less visible. People tend not to think about them as readily as refugees and migrants.”
Numbers to rise
The total number of IDPs has doubled since 2000 and stands at 40.3 million as of December 2016. The numbers are likely to rise further if conditions stay the same as last year, said Bilak.
“Looking at the conflicts around the world as well as climate change issues, we don’t expect the numbers to go down anytime soon in either case [conflict or natural disasters]. The only way the numbers can decrease is if there is more investment on working on the underlying drivers that force people to flee – poverty reduction, peace building and climate change.”
The report also highlighted the intensity of the humanitarian crisis in Congo and how there is a “need for more development spending to be allocated to reducing existing vulnerabilities and future risk and for mitigating the longer-term impacts of internal displacement”.
Almost five million people were killed in Congo between 1994 and 2003 as a result of ethnic violence. Almost 19,000 UN troops are currently protecting Congolese people from violence in Congo amid calls by the United States to reduce that number despite increasing attacks and instability.
“That DRC figure really took us all a bit by surprise. Over the last four to five years, it was usually the Middle East that was consistently high on the list and DRC had fallen off the agenda,” said Bilak.
“It’s unrealistic to expect the international community to solve a problem as huge as the DRC alone. It’s a protracted crisis. There is very little humanitarian assistance on the ground in some parts.”
The Syrian refugee crisis remains one of the largest humanitarian crises since the end of World War II.
The number of refugees who have fled the country now exceeds five million, including more than 2.4 million children, and millions more have been displaced internally, according to the UN.
At least 23,544 civilians were displaced between May 18 and 22, 2016, added the UN.
“People say displacement is a domestic issue and should be resolved at a domestic level. Many see it as an encroachment at national sovereignty. Internal displacement requires its own set of principles and the approach is very different from the refugee and migrant issue.”
Additionally, many refugees returning to their home country fear the risk of being internally displaced once they return. Large-scale returns were mirrored by a considerable increase in the number of IDPs in 46 percent of cases between 2000 and 2016, according to the World Bank.
The IDMC presented the case of around 600,000 Afghans returning from Pakistan. UNHCR estimates that around half of them were unable to return to their place of origin.
Destructive floods and landslides in northern China killed at least 154 people and accounted for the majority of those displaced.
Jan Egeland, the head of the NRC, said the shocking figures show the need to focus as much on people displaced inside their countries than on refugees who flee across borders.
“Internally displaced people now outnumber refugees by two to one. It is urgent to put internal displacement back on the global agenda,” said Egeland.
A number of the IDPs, in search of improved conditions then cross over into a different country, said the IDMC. As a result, “today’s IDPs could become tomorrow’s refugees”.
“We know there’s an overlap but there is not enough data to be able to put a number to that phenomenon. We have the number of IDPs in a country but the minute they cross a border, not all of them appear on UNHCR registers. Many fall between the cracks. We know it’s happening. In Syria, In sub-Saharan Africa. It happens across the board.”