Words like “refugee” and “internally displaced person” (IDP) can cause a variety of reactions among funders. Compassion aside, it’s understandable to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers—and potentially put off by the violence, political situations, and other complexities often involved. But here’s the challenge: Those who have been displaced—either within their own nation’s borders as IDPs or now in another nation as refugees—can face unimaginable humanitarian trials. And when it comes to IDPs in particular, there is no binding international law or agency with the full authority/formal responsibility to ensure they receive the assistance they need.  This is especially challenging for those internally displaced due to conflict rather than natural disaster.

05TH-OPEDLIBYA_494232fAt the end of 2012, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), there were 28.8 million IDPs worldwide due to violence, and another 32.4 million due to natural disasters. With the ongoing civil war in Syria, however—considered by many the greatest humanitarian crisis of modern time—in addition to current conflicts in areas such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic, those numbers have continued to rise. As of February 2014, according to USAID, there were already more 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria alone, including 6.5 million internally displaced from the conflict, and another 2.4 million refugees in neighboring countries. As the average length of displacement for a refugee or IDP is close to 20 years, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the solutions are neither easy nor quick.

UNHCR, as the UN Refugee Agency, works to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees worldwide.  The agency’s original mandate doesn’t cover IDPs, but the recent Cluster Approach—instituted in 2006 as part of the UN Humanitarian Reform process—gave the agency an increased role in overseeing efforts to help IDPs. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that individual national governments will comply or allow access to those displaced; sometimes the government was a factor in the displacement. In addition, UNHCR, which assisted a record-high 20 million-plus IDPs in 2013, focuses mainly on those displaced because of conflict; it will help those displaced by natural disasters if it already is working in the area.

Among the general public, misconceptions remain. “The assumption is that everybody goes home,” said Susan Martin, executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. “Even when repatriation is possible, people don’t necessarily return to their home communities. Take Afghanistan. About 50 percent of the Afghan refugees who returned from Pakistan after U.S. intervention ended up wanting to go to cities, to urban areas around the country, because the fighting was still going on. There might be landmines in their farms, so they couldn’t return to farming. It’s really hard to find solutions to these problems. Just ending a war is not enough. Things seldom end neatly.”

Shelly Pitterman, head of the UNHCR office in Washington, D.C., said he hopes to see gaps bridged between relief and longer-term development in terms of those displaced. And with greater understanding, the philanthropic community can help it happen.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Much progress has been made in ensuring care for IDPs in recent years; the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, for example, was a strong start. The Brookings Institution, through its Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, has been at the forefront of ensuring acceptance and application of these international standards for IDPs, and continues research for durable solutions. Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the project, said it’s important to remember that “when you’re displaced, you don’t lose all of your human rights.” Helping governments ensure these rights are maintained has been challenging—but rewarding for all, she said.
  • In attempting to help those displaced, lack of access can be the biggest issue. Unlike refugees, IDPs typically are located outside of camps in either remote or urban areas, making them harder to reach and assist. In addition, if conflict is involved, they may be in areas that are considered unsafe, Georgetown’s Martin said.
  • If conflict is involved, humanitarian assistance may need to remain fluid. This means donors must be more flexible, and will likely need to put more trust in partnering NGOs than they’re accustomed to. Programs may be operating remotely, and therefore may be less transparent.
  • Those who are displaced are often the poorest from the outset. This is especially so with IDPs; the more money available, the further the travel possible—including to another nation, where refugee status may help with access to services.
  • Roughly three of four people who are displaced are women and dependent children. As a result, issues such as healthcare, nutrition, and education must remain at the forefront, Martin said.
  • Acute natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods often the cause of displacement. But slow-onset natural disasters, on the rise due to climate change, are bringing new questions about assistance for those affected.

So how can funders help? A list of suggestions from Martin, Ferris, and Pitterman is available here. (Link to Assisting IDPs and Refugees article below)

The first step, however, is to get beyond the overwhelming statistics and consider the individuals involved.

“This is an imperative for us,” UNHCR’s Pitterman said. “If there are five million or 50 million, it’s why we’re working. We have no choice, to be quite simple about it.… These situations don’t get resolved overnight. They tend to be protracted, and there tends to be a certain fatigue as new situations evolve. But these aren’t just numbers. When it comes down to who you’re giving a blanket or cooking pot to, it’s Salwa. Or it’s Joe. These are real people.”

Assisting IDPs and Refugees

Funders interested in helping refugees and internationally displaced persons (IDPs) can assist in a variety of ways. The following suggestions have been culled from Susan Martin, executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; Shelly Pitterman, head of the UNHCR office in Washington, D.C.; and Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement.

  • Recognize that not all IDP and refugee situations are related to political issues. As a funder, it may still be possible to be involved in providing humanitarian assistance without “taking sides” in the conflict. In any event, humanitarian aid should be provided impartially and be seen as nonpolitical.
  • Build capacity of—and increase advocacy for—those already working in the field.  This is especially needed in terms of IDPs, as there’s no lead international agency with oversight for IDPs in the case of natural disasters. There is technically no single lead agency for conflict-induced IDPs, either, although agencies divide up the lead in various clusters.
  • Support education programs that will prepare the next generation for working in these fields. First, build compassion among youth for those who are different from them. But second, as the challenges grow, so too must the skills and expertise of humanitarian workers—many of whom are facing life threatening situations in assisting and protecting refugees and IDPs.
  •  Strengthening assistance to refugees within the U.S. Each year the U.S. admits tens of thousands of refugees who are escaping conflict. Donors can play an important role in helping them integrate into local communities. Public information and education could be strengthened to build support for more effective refugee policies.
  • Support ongoing efforts to implement international principles, policies, and laws concerning IDPs. In addition, work to ensure those displaced are recognized as citizens with rights.
  • Continue studies of climate change and its impact on natural disasters. Of special concern: slow-onset natural disasters such as drought and environmental degradation, as they impact food security and therefore compound issues.
  • Fund entrepreneurial and sustainable livelihood efforts for those displaced. As Ferris points out, many are educated, professional citizens with much to offer their host communities.
  • Increase understanding of land tenure issues and how they affect those displaced. The restoration of land and property rights, for example, is a key component of long-term recovery.
  • Incorporate solutions for IDPs into emergency planning from the very beginning. Even better, ensure that IDPs, host communities, and area civil society organizations are involved in planning and program delivery. Those displaced are able to make informed decisions.
  • Support efforts to better document and identify IDPs. Not only will this help ensure access to services; it also could help reduce the number of IDPs turning to “negative coping mechanisms”  in the case of an emergency, such as early/forced marriage, prostitution, child labor, etc., according to the dialogue at a recent UNHCR event. Some populations are particularly vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, and those with disabilities.

Current IDP/Refugee Situations

As Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and a Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy, puts it, any time there are people forced from their homes and crossing international borders, “it’s a sign something’s terribly wrong.” In today’s climate, numerous nations are challenged not only with internally displaced persons (IDPs) but also other “people of concern.” On that list, as defined by UNHCR: refugees, asylum seekers, returned refugees, returned IDPs, stateless persons, and others.

Some situations have been ongoing for years; consider, for example, Iraq, where more than 1.1 million IDPs are said to remain since the sectarian violence triggered by the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra Shrine. In other areas, however, challenges continue to emerge. In South Sudan, at least 723,900 people were said to be displaced between December 2013 and February 2014. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 2.9 million IDPs, critical needs go beyond shelter and education to reducing the risk of sexual and gender-based violence. And in Syria, the number of those internally displaced has now topped 6.5 million.

The UNHCR offers detailed information and updates about still-developing crises here:

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