UN: Around 60 million internally displaced people facing ‘invisible crisis’

Abdiyo Barre Ali (right) and Abdiyo Ali Abdi (left) recite poetry at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, September 2022. Around one million people have been internally displaced by the worst drought to hit the country in forty years. (Keystone/AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Around 60 million people driven from their homes by conflict, climate change and disasters are at risk of being forgotten in what the UN development chief has dubbed an “invisible crisis” facing internally displaced people.

The number of people forced to flee from their homes passed 100 million in September 2022 for the first time on record. The majority of those forcibly displaced were trapped in the borders of their own country, often unable to return home for years or decades.

There were over 59.1 million people displaced within their own countries by the end of 2021 – the highest ever global figure and more than double the number recorded 10 years ago. This was before conflict erupted in Ukraine in February, during which some 6.2 million people have been displaced internally according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In a report published on Tuesday, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warned that despite internally displaced people (IDPs) remaining in their own countries, they were often deprived of access to basic services such as education, health, social protection and livelihoods.

“More efforts are needed to end the marginalisation of IDPs who must be able to exercise their full rights as citizens including through access to vital services such as healthcare, education, social protection and job opportunities,” UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said in a statement.

Analysis of data from eight countries including Colombia, Sudan, Somalia and Vanuatu found that one third of IDPs surveyed fell into long-term unemployment, with displaced women the worst affected.

Nearly 70 per cent said they did not have enough money to meet their households’ needs, while one third said their health had worsened since they fled from home. Two-thirds of internally displaced children experienced breaks in their education, with girls significantly less likely to return to school if they experienced disruption.

The report found that displaced people often lacked access to permanent housing, with many remaining in transitional shelters for extended periods of time. It also warned that IDPs often struggled to integrate into new communities due to religious or cultural tensions, making it harder for them to rebuild their lives and threatening social cohesion in host communities.

“The systems [in host communities] often do not take into account external populations that come into that community. They treat them as outsiders,” UNDP assistant secretary general Asako Okai told Geneva Solutions. “We need to recognise the rights of these displaced populations. They should be represented in decision-making processes.”

Without concrete action, climate change could force more than 216 million people to move within their own countries by 2050, according to the World Bank. With millions unlikely to be able to return home, UNDP called on countries to find more long-term, sustainable solutions for internally displaced people, including guaranteeing their access to full rights as citizens and prioritising their access to basic services and livelihoods.

Many IDPs are displaced several times due to multiple reasons including conflict and extreme weather, leaving them unable to return home. In Somalia, which is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, one million people have been displaced following the failure of a fifth rainy season in a row. Many are unlikely to return home due to extreme temperatures and failed crops.

In Sudan, 3.2 million people were internally displaced by the end of 2021, around 56 per cent of whom had been displaced for over 10 years. A large proportion live in overcrowded shelters with no access to water, sanitation or other essential services, and tend to be disconnected from the lives of their families and communities, which are often linked to rural production such as agriculture, trade and livestock.

UNDP said countries had to move beyond short-term solutions to ensure IDPs were not left behind, which in turn threatened to reverse hard-won development gains. In 2021, the direct impact of internal displacement globally was estimated at over $21.5bn.

The organisation said humanitarian aid alone was insufficient to support people who were facing long-term internal displacement and needed support building new lives for themselves rather than being left in limbo.

“In tandem with critical humanitarian assistance, this stronger development-focused approach will be vital to set the conditions for pathways to lasting peace, stability and recovery,” said Steiner.