Internal Displacement: An Agenda for Progress


Internally displaced people (IDPs) make up the largest group of displaced people in the world. By definition, they have been forced to flee their homes to escape armed conflict, violence, human rights violations, natural disasters, or climate-related events, but have not crossed international borders to find safety. While the rights of refugees—who are outside their countries of origin—are protected by a range of norms, principles, and laws at international, regional, and national levels, those of IDPs are not. Although IDPs’ home states are technically responsible for their protection,  those states are often unable or unwilling to fulfill their duty. In many cases, the home state is in fact the cause of internal displacement, and even actively persecutes IDPs. As a result, IDPs often lack the protections they need during emergency and long-term stages of displacement. This is exacerbated by the fact that efforts to address the plight of IDPs generally receive far less attention, funding, and resources than those for other displaced groups. Yet many are facing some of the direst humanitarian crises in the world, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Syria, and the Central African Republic.

The international community has made some advances in how the humanitarian system responds to internal displacement. In recent years, the United Nations (UN), intergovernmental regional bodies, and other actors established various IDP-specific principles and frameworks, including the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the cluster approach, a coordination mechanism for IDP responses and other emergencies. The Kampala Convention and the IDP Protocol of the Great Lakes Pact also stand out as important regional models for upholding the rights of IDPs. More recently, the UN Secretary-General established the High Level Panel on Internal Displacement to provide concrete recommendations to better prevent, respond, and achieve solutions to internal displacement.

Among the most prominent ideas reinforced from these initiatives, which are largely grounded in existing human rights law, is the notion that states are first and foremost responsible for ensuring IDP protection, assistance, access to rights, and solutions. Overall, their aim has been to make IDP responses more transparent, accountable, and predictable. However, there is still long way to go.

The reality is that many gaps remain. Responses to IDP situations are still largely ad hoc and at the will of politicians. Glaring divides between relief, development, and peacebuilding actors make long-term solutions difficult to achieve. And despite a semi-functioning cluster system, coordination remains a challenge. There is also no single lead in the UN system to champion IDP issues. Funding is also patchy, with donors sometimes hesitant to work on IDP and host community projects and fearful of encroaching on national sovereignty in politically contentious settings. Like refugees, IDPs seldom have a say in decisions over the aid they receive or solutions to resolve their displacement, despite being best-placed to make such decisions.

This brief takes stock of internal displacement as a global issue, examining both new initiatives and ongoing challenges to responding to IDP situations. It speaks directly to the priorities of the High Level Panel on Internal Displacement, and provides recommendations to improve IDPs’ access to protection, assistance, rights, and paths to durable solutions. Some key recommendations include:

  1. Create the position of Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Internal Displacement.
  2. Design and implement IDP programs that engage development actors and financing institutions at the earliest stages of displacement.
  3. Promote IDP leadership and participation at every level and every stage of response.
  4. Create an annual forum to focus on developing IDP solutions.
  5. Encourage greater state coherence and ownership of IDP responses and programs.
  6. Strengthen regional approaches to internal displacement.


According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), there are an estimated 55 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world today—nearly twice the number of refugees. Most of the world’s conflict- and violence-induced IDPs live in protracted displacement.1 In contrast, there tend to be large numbers of internal displacements resulting from natural hazards that are resolved quickly. Indeed, although there were some 30.7 million new cases of disaster-induced displacement in 2020, only 7 million in total were still displaced by disasters at the end of 2020. Climate change is having an impact on the number and severity of natural disasters and its effects can cause displacement in other ways, such as by disrupting food supplies and livelihoods. This also affects urbanization trends, struggles over scarce resources, and political tensions, among other challenges.

Unlike in the case of refugees, there is no dedicated international law nor equivalent level of legal norms and principles governing the rights of IDPs and states’ responsibilities towards them. Although the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement derive their authority from existing human rights law, practitioners and policymakers continue to struggle to make IDP responses predictable and coordinated. Moreover, while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other UN agencies do extensive work with IDPs, there is no dedicated UN agency with a mandate to address IDP issues, and UN data on IDPs remains difficult to come by. In part, this is because IDPs are often hard to recognize and reach because they remain in their own countries and, in some cases, do not wish to be identified. States and donors may also find humanitarian intervention in IDP crises more politically contentious, as states—particularly those that cause the displacement in the first place—may bristle at what they perceive to be impingement on their sovereign right to respond to internal political and security situations.

There are regional instruments, such as the Kampala Convention and the IDP Protocol of the Great Lakes Pact, that stand out as regional models for upholding the rights of IDPs. These and other initiatives seek to make IDP responses more transparent, accountable, and predictable. However, enforcing and embedding them in national law remains extremely difficult.2

The main international coordination mechanism for emergency response to humanitarian crises, including internal displacement, is the cluster approach. The clusters were created in 2005 to address gaps in what was a relatively ad hoc system of responding to internal displacement. They were designed to improve system-wide preparedness and technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies writ large and to ensure clear leadership and accountability in the main areas of humanitarian response. Clusters are made up of UN and non-UN actors that share information and coordinate their actions in specific sectors of humanitarian action.

The clusters and their lead agencies are designated by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and have clear responsibilities for coordination. Global cluster leads support Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs), including through technical surge capacity and expert assistance. Cluster leads at the country level work to improve predictability and accountability of humanitarian action and strengthen partnerships between the range of humanitarian actors operating on the ground. In fact, leadership for country-level clusters is sometimes shared by a UN agency and an NGO as co-leads. In these cases, an inter-cluster coordinator oversees all cluster coordination and supports the Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC) in coordinating the relief and development actors.

Although the cluster system has spawned an impressive array of sub-cluster and inter-cluster mechanisms to respond to situations of internal displacement, it should be stressed that the clusters were not intended and do not have a mandate to find durable solutions for IDPs. At its core, the cluster approach is a coordination mechanism for humanitarian actors. Though an early recovery cluster was established in 2005 to bring in development actors to support longer-term recovery—presumably including durable solutions for IDPs—it struggled to take hold and has not been very effective.


IDPs are not a uniform group, and the context of each displacement situation is different. Still, there are some general challenges and constraints that explain the limitations of the international response to internal displacement. 

  • The UN and broader international community need more tools to hold states accountable to their treatment of IDPs, and to further ensure that IDPs can access their rights.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, as well as other regional agreements like the Kampala Convention, emphasize that states have primary responsibility for IDPs within their borders. Although there is no formal international legal regime governing internal displacement, this principle is in line with human rights law that should be at the core of IDP responses. Unfortunately, states too often shirk this responsibility, ignoring or loosely interpreting their obligations to protect and assist IDPs. In some cases, states overtly deny this duty. Refugees International has reported on cases where this occurs, including in Myanmar, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia.

In even more extreme situations, states refuse to acknowledge that IDPs even exist or block assistance from reaching them. They may insist that humanitarian intervention to support IDPs is an encroachment on state sovereignty. Humanitarian actors, meanwhile, have few tools to respond or argue for intervention.

This reality means that states are unlikely to endorse the overhaul of the existing humanitarian regime, or the creation of a new regime establishing entirely new sets of obligations. The UN and broader international community therefore need tools to hold IDP-hosting states accountable and, where possible, assert additional pressure on states to ensure that IDPs can access their rights.

  • The IDP response architecture is humanitarian-focused, leaving development actors on the outskirts and lasting solutions hard to achieve

Despite the fact that the majority of the world’s displaced people live in protracted situations, the cluster approach developed in 2005 is rooted in a humanitarian system designed to respond to short-term emergency needs. This is a critical objective, but it leaves few entry points for development actors to plan and implement longer-term projects critical for effective durable solutions. Indeed, as Refugees International and researcher Elizabeth Ferris previously wrote in a briefing paper for the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement:

“Finding solutions for IDPs requires a different kind of intervention. It is less about the provision of shelter and food, and more about supporting livelihoods and restoring economies. It is less about speedy action and more about sustainable results. It is less about singling out the displaced as objects of concern and more about community engagement.”

To move towards solutions, then, requires thinking beyond the existing humanitarian response system and including development actors to design programs that focus on self-reliance, livelihoods, and labor market access for IDPs. This should occur alongside other longer-term projects promoting access to education, health, and social services. A more holistic response is important given that displaced people’s needs change over time. Designing and implementing adequate solutions also requires accounting for the critical role IDPs play in their local host communities.

Importantly, development actors should be more fully involved from the early stages of an IDP response. This is complicated by the fact that humanitarian and development actors are inherently different. While humanitarian assistance during the emergency phase is focused on delivering life-saving measures, as time passes, longer-term interventions that build resilience and relationships with the host community are needed. Humanitarian actors often straddle longer-term and immediate assistance, sometimes operating in limbo for years rather than handing off work to development actors. This may be intentional—if programs continue because the population remains in need—or unintentional—because it can be hard to pare years-long programs down and shift them to a different actor with a different vision.

Hand-offs from humanitarian to development actors—if they even exist—are clumsy at best. Development and humanitarian actors have different funding cycles, different project timelines, and, more substantively, sometimes different philosophical foundations. Because development actors tend to focus on the stresses that displacement causes for national development plans, they often work more closely with governments—particularly local governments—and are more likely to see them as partners. By contrast, while humanitarian actors may also partner with governments, their presence is often predicated on the fact that the government is unable or unwilling to offer sufficient relief. This dynamic means that humanitarian actors may be more likely to envision a “hand-off” of their projects after a period of time—either to government or development actors.

The “hand-off” approach thus has some obvious drawbacks. Most notably, development actors do not see their work as simply being an extension of humanitarian work for a longer period of time. For these reasons, it is challenging to bring development actors into humanitarian coordination mechanisms like the clusters, and it is not surprising, then, that the Early Recovery cluster—the cluster intended to embody development work—has largely been viewed as unsuccessful.

  • Regional approaches and country-level working groups

There is great potential in regional bodies and country-level working groups, some of which embody cooperation between humanitarian and development actors. In the Syrian context, the Durable Solutions Platform, for example, engages NGOs, civil society, and researchers from across humanitarian and development organizations—many of whose members are Syrian—in working toward solutions for displaced Syrians, including IDPs. In addition, the Durable Solutions Initiative (DSI) in Ethiopia has fostered coordination across development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding actors at local and national levels—an important way of working in a country with vastly different regional contexts. In Ethiopia’s Somali region, for example, the DSI has facilitated a shared commitment amongst relevant government line ministries, the UN Country Team, international financial institutions (IFIs), donors, and NGOs to work towards achieving durable solutions to internal displacement.

The Joint IDP Profiling Service in Iraq has also demonstrated how development and humanitarian organizations can work with government officials and researchers to collect data on IDPs. Additional efforts in Colombia, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and Turkey offer lessons for creating opportunities for initiatives at the nexus of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding work.

At a regional level, the Regional Durable Solutions Secretariat (ReDSS), which operates in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, works as a coordination and information hub for finding solutions to internal displacement. It is made up of 14 NGOs3 and seeks to improve joint learning and programming, inform policy processes, enhance capacity development, and facilitate coordination in the collective search for durable solutions.

  • IDPs still do not receive the attention that refugees do, and lack a central advocate

Despite a range of initiatives, high-profile situations, and scholarship on internal displacement, there is a general lack of commitment at the global level to address internal displacement. As much as the UN, NGOs, civil society, and others work within the cluster system to respond to the needs of IDPs, and raise concerns about internal displacement, many of these concerns remain unaddressed until states are willing to take further action. Moreover, there is no single UN agency or individual with the mandate and capacity to maintain international focus on IDP issues in the same manner that, for example, UNHCR does for refugees. Certainly, UNHCR is one of the leading UN agencies that work with IDPs. There is also a Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, currently Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, in place to provide critical information to IDPs. However, this role lacks the resources to engage fully in diplomatic efforts on internal displacement.

Similarly, research on internal displacement still has a long way to go. First and foremost, IDP issues are still largely studied and addressed in large measure through the lens of refugee scholarship and policy analysis. This means that categories, labels, norms, and principles are often borrowed from refugee scholarship, which may not always apply. Indeed, conflating IDPs with refugees can be limiting. For example, the traditional “durable solutions” for refugees (return, local integration, and resettlement) do not necessarily apply in the context of internal displacement, which may include more cyclical displacement. Moreover, understanding when displacement “ends” in an IDP context is quite different than in a refugee context. Newer scholarship that breaks out of the “refugee script” to think about internal displacement in a more nuanced way is needed. Similarly, better data is needed to fully grasp the scale and scope of internal displacement and the best ways to understand specific contexts and appropriate solutions.

As mentioned, there also seems little appetite for states and others to take on additional obligations—particularly binding obligations—to address internal displacement. Existing human rights law already leaves some state officials feeling that their national sovereignty is being encroached upon, and other states may be hesitant to advocate around IDP situations for fear of political repercussions. The lack of interest and commitment is in contrast to international efforts around refugees. Although progress has been uneven, a range of new initiatives have emerged since 2016 to improve the global response to refugees, attempting to bolster accountability and responsibility sharing.4 IDPs have been largely left out of these conversations.

  • Lack of IDP leadership and participation in responses and solutions

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement recognize the centrality of IDP participation in “the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration,” and a range of actors, including the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs and the Global Protection Cluster, have all outlined the importance of IDP participation in finding solutions.5 Indeed, literature on humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding, emphasizes that engaging directly with IDPs can improve decision-making, information, and local knowledge. Most importantly, it benefits IDPs themselves by maximizing their access to solutions in their communities.

Nevertheless, existing international coordination mechanisms—including clusters and governmental initiatives—usually exclude IDPs from planning and decision making. At best, opportunities for IDPs to inform responses to displacement and planning for durable solutions are spotty. 


The challenges facing IDPs are diverse, and no single approach will work in every context—each situation and individual is different. Nonetheless, there are some steps that can be taken to improve how IDPs access their rights, receive assistance, and seek solutions to their situation, whether their displacement is short-term or protracted.

1.     Create the position of Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Internal Displacement.

To draw additional international attention to IDPs, the UN should establish a well-resourced Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for IDPs. This position would be complementary to the role of Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons, which undertakes research and reporting pursuant to Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.  Refugees International argued in 2018 that an SRSG for IDPs would be best placed to have direct access to the highest levels of UN leadership and bring the political influence necessary to mobilize attention and resources to IDPs. They should have regular communication with the Secretary-General and brief UN member states on a regular basis following missions to the field.

An SRSG would need to have the stature and experience to bring together development, humanitarian, and peacekeeping actors, and to engage diplomatically in difficult political situations. They could help to keep IDPs on the international agenda, and continue to push for states’ adherence to normative standards and operational frameworks. The role would need to be well-staffed and well-resourced to take on several IDP situations per year, engaging in the pursuit of solutions, particularly in protracted cases.

2.     Design and implement IDP programs that engage development actors and financing institutions at the earliest stages of displacement.

Although many development actors already work with IDPs in the context of general country programming, projects and funding streams are rarely specifically dedicated to IDPs and their hosts. In the same way that the World Bank has started taking a more active role in refugee-specific settings, an IDP focus for the World Bank, other development financing institutions, and donors should create paths for desperately needed long-term solutions. They should create dedicated funding programs for IDP solutions and include support for host communities both as incentives for host government endorsement and because such support will lead to stronger development outcomes. Moreover, governments creating national development plans and international actors focusing on development should explicitly acknowledge how IDPs should be included in this planning, including the challenges and opportunities that come with internal displacement for host communities. The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) has provided opportunities for development actors to invest in communities hosting refugees, including in infrastructure, services, and other aspects of the labor market. A similar model could be followed for IDPs. IDPs should also be included in public health efforts and vaccination campaigns, including for COVID-19.

In addition, the plan to more fully empower HC/RCs—as envisioned in the Secretary-General’s plans for broader changes to the UN system—should move ahead, positioning them to seek new opportunities to bring together humanitarian, development, and peacekeeping actors. This can be seen in recent calls for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNHCR to advise UN HC/RCs to develop a strategy for durable solutions for displaced people.

3.     Promote IDP leadership and participation at every level and every stage of response.

IDP participation and leadership in planning, executing, and evaluating programs are essential, from the emergency response phase until long-term solutions are realized. Studies of IDP participation—and that of women in particular—in the wake of the Aceh disaster in Indonesia and in Darfur offer specific lessons about the diverse ways that humanitarian and development actors can engage displaced people. For example, these stakeholders should make intentional efforts to seek out women, LGBTQI people, elderly people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups for their views on the design of programs, peace processes, and policy decisions. Studies also show that IDPs lack access to information during all phases of displacement. Thus, ensuring their effective participation requires not only creating channels for engagement, but also providing regular access to quality information. 

Refugees International has emphasized why IDP participation is not only the right thing to do, but will lead to more effective, efficient, and sustainable programs. Indeed, IDPs themselves are best-placed to make decisions about policies and programs that will most effectively facilitate their path to solutions. Their meaningful input should be a central part of IDP work at the UN, NGO, civil society, and state levels, and an SRSG should champion approaches that prioritize IDP participation and leadership.

Donor governments should dedicate both bilateral and multilateral funding to support IDP leadership and participation, in global, regional, and national decision-making on these issues.

4.     Create an annual forum to focus on developing IDP solutions.

A newly appointed SRSG, in partnership with other institutions and organizations, should create an annual forum focused exclusively on discussing and advancing solutions to situations of internal displacement. The UN-run forum—modeled after the Global Refugee Forum—would highlight several IDP situations for debate and discussion and showcase innovative solutions and good practices from regional and national bodies. It could also generate public interest and media coverage, as well as direct engagement with donors and other states.

This forum could also drive a robust research agenda to be carried out by a network of scholars, NGOs, think tanks, the Special Rapporteur, UN agencies, and others, dedicated to understanding IDP issues apart from refugee issues. This could include separate workstreams (e.g. climate-induced internal displacement, the dynamics of urban internal displacement, development-induced displacement, etc.). In addition to supporting the critical work already carried out by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), it could also revive projects akin to the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, which led valuable research and analysis on IDP issues for many years. Other research networks, including the Internal Displacement Research Programme at the University of London, should continue to encourage scholars from countries with large IDP populations, as well as the global south, to lead on innovation and thinking around IDP solutions. A catalogue of best practices and lessons learned should be compiled to learn from various IDP situations, such as DRC (2010), Chad (2010), Uganda (2010), and Ukraine (2017). These best practices should feed directly into solutions on the ground.

5.     Encourage greater state coherence and ownership of IDP responses and programs.

It is important for various relevant government ministries and offices to share responsibility for addressing IDP issues. But in countries with large IDP populations, we recommend that governments establish a dedicated IDP agency—or an agency lead, or focal point for IDP issues—to support coordination and press other parts of the government to fulfill their responsibilities. This lead agency could also facilitate registration of IDPs and other measures to improve collection of data on the numbers, demographics, locations, and conditions of IDPs—information that is essential to improving responses. Regional and international actors should also assist with this.

The lead agency would also work to create an environment where IDPs can advocate for their own rights and seek protection and assistance without risk of punishment or harm. Officials, including military and police forces, therefore need to be trained to protect IDP rights. National justice systems should also be prepared to play their roles in upholding the law as it applies to the protection and assistance of IDPs.

In addition, states should embrace whole-of-government approaches to IDP response. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other frameworks for IDP response are rooted in human rights law and the notion that governments are responsible for IDPs. To help states fulfil these wide-ranging obligations, donor governments and multilateral organizations should provide capacity-building support, working with national, regional, and local officials to develop institutional mandates, legislation, and regulation needed to address the needs of IDPs. Indeed, a whole-of-government approach is essential to protecting and assisting IDPs and realizing solutions to their displacement. The fact that humanitarian and development actors may have different relationships with different arms of the government may present more opportunities for government buy-in across a range of ministries and offices and at different administrative levels. This is especially important in IDP responses; while national commitment is critical, most of the work of supporting solutions falls on the shoulders of provincial or local authorities.

6.     Strengthen regional approaches to internal displacement.

More broadly, regional bodies should play a role in promoting accountability for violations of international standards against forced displacement. They should be supported with donor funding, urged to meet regularly, and liaise directly with the Special Representative to the Secretary-General.

States’ engagement in regional bodies and regional meetings have proven effective for addressing internal displacement. Several countries often have an interest given that a situation of internal displacement can quickly become a refugee situation if the IDPs feel compelled to flee across a border. Regional organizations can assist with technical cooperation, capacity-building, and resource mobilization to help governments fulfill their responsibilities toward IDPs. They may also be able to reach IDPs outside government-controlled areas.

For example, the 2005 the South African Development Community, (SADC) regional meeting on internal displacement brought together more than 100 participants, with representatives of thirteen African governments, national human rights institutions, the SADC secretariat, local and international NGOs, UN agencies, donor governments, and experts from research institutions.

East Africa’s Intergovernmental authority, IGAD’s, October 2019 meeting on internal displacement also emerged with several areas of focus, including area-based approaches for effective solutions that embrace the complexity of a displacement situation, and plans to work at the nexus of humanitarian, development, peacebuilding efforts, and government actors.


 Internal displacement should be a top priority on the international agenda. The humanitarian and development dimensions intersect with some of the most challenging political and security situations facing the world today. While many gains have been made in IDP response, the reality is that many IDPs still have little access to their basic rights and receive only ad hoc assistance and support. Moreover, most IDPs find themselves lacking a long-term solution, in some cases languishing for years in limbo.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to begin to address these challenges, and the HLP is entertaining some of them. Among these, creating an SRSG position to help see through the recommendations of the High Level Panel is a good start. Other efforts to address how humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors engage on internal displacement to work toward solutions should also be prioritized. Expanding IDP participation and labor market access are other important issue areas that could have immediate impact on the lives of IDPs.


1 A protracted IDP situation is one “in which tangible progress towards durable solutions is slow or stalled for significant periods of time because IDPs are prevented from taking or are unable to take steps that allow them to progressively reduce the vulnerability, impoverishment and marginalization they face as displaced people, in order to regain a self-sufficient and dignified life and ultimately find a durable solution,” Walter Kälin and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat, ‘Breaking the Impasse: Resolving Protracted Internal Displacement  as Collective Outcome,’ OCHA Policy and Studies Series, p. 20, 2017,

2 For more, see

3 ACF, ACTED, CARE International, Concern Worldwide, DRC, IRC, INTERSOS, Mercy Corps, NRC, Oxfam, RCK, Save the Children, World Vision, LWF and ACF with DRC, IRC and NRC.

4 Since 2016, the international community has pushed a range of initiatives and approaches to improve the humanitarian and development responses to large-scale, long-term refugee situations. Some included the World Humanitarian Summit, specific efforts to respond to the Syrian crisis (Supporting Syria and the Region; High Level Meeting on Global Responsibility Sharing through Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees), the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, the US Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, and of course the Global Compacts, New York Declaration, Grand Bargain and Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. These have been welcome progress, given the ever-increasing number of displaced in complex crises like Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But IDPs are, by and large, absent from these initiatives.

5 Principle 28, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

PHOTO CAPTION: Aerial view of IDP camps near Kafr Lusin in Idlib countryside on the Syrian-Turkish border on July 2, 2021. (Photo by Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto via Getty Images)