Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Forgotten Refugees

Millions of people have been forced out of their homes without crossing an international border. They’re labeled “internally displaced people,” (IDP) and international humanitarian laws grant them virtually no protection, despite the fact that they often live under worse conditions than global refugees. The plight of “IDPs” is often overlooked because they are rarely counted. Despite the fact that the internal-displacement crisis is even larger than the refugee crisis in numerical and humanitarian terms, the plight of IDPs remains shamefully neglected.

Refugee law emerged as a political response to modern warfare, as a way to provide temporary relief to victims of turmoil and political repression. While international refugees are afforded certain legal protections (like the right to claim asylum in the court system of their host country, or to access humanitarian aid like emergency shelter and medical care), IDPs are generally subject to domestic laws, and often live under oppressive regimes with policies that forced them to migrate in the first place. A lack of relief at home is a key factor that drives international refugee migration, whether inside a given region or from Global South to North. 

The International Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated that more than 40 million people were internally displaced as of late 2016, with three-quarters of them having fled home in the past year. The chief causes were environmental disasters such as storms and floods, while conflicts and violence triggered about 7 million forced migrations.

Violence-driven internal migration is concentrated in war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with about 920,000 displacements, followed by Afghanistan, with 652,000. 

Internal communal violence has displaced many communities—even in relatively “stable” countries like India and the Philippines, where conflict displaced more than 800,000 people combined. 

The crisis will deepen as climate-change destabilizes environments and livelihoods, as the IDMP acknowledges: “Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and environmental degradation will increase displacement risk further.”  It could also breed even more conflict, as appears to be happening in the rapidly desertifying Middle East. Famines in Somalia and territorial battles in rural Brazil show the impossibility of disentangling “man-made” and “natural” violence in regions that become simultaneously ecologically and socially uninhabitable.

Indigenous and minority groups face heightened risk in land-rights clashes, and the poverty linked to their social marginalization leaves them more exposed to environmental disasters. In Colombia, a country plagued by climate change and civil war, Afro-Colombian and indigenous people make up three-quarters of victims of mass-displacement events, even though they constitute less than a fifth of the total population.

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