Last December, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that 2015 saw record-breaking levels of forced migration; over 60 million individuals were pushed from their homes. Roughly speaking, the number of people subjected to forced migration last year was equivalent to the populations of Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio combined.

Syrian refugees, in images of capsized boats and dead children on the shores of Greece, have captured the world’s attention, bringing media coverage to the plight of forced migrants. But the reality is that the world is paying attention to only one subset of the issue: cross-border refugees. The plight of internally displaced people has gone less noticed, simply because these migrants do not land on our shores.

Refugees who cross international borders to flee violence, persecution, or environmental crisis not only receive the bulk of the world’s attention; they also receive the majority of international assistance dollars. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, has budgeted about 80 percent of its overall biennial program budget for 2016–2017 toward refugee-related activities all over the world. The majority of the 60 million intended recipients of UN aid are not technically refugees; they are, rather, “internally displaced persons,” and programs specifically targeted for them receive about 20 percent of the budget. Although emergencies should receive attention, these people are in danger too; they do not have the means or ability to exit the country, and aid groups have the hardest time reaching them within the borders of a sovereign state whose government has mistreated them. 


The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 38 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and violence, but have either opted to stay within their country or have not been able to flee to another state. Perhaps the best-known internally displaced people are those in Syria. Rough estimates suggest that there are 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians still within the nation’s borders. Far less attention has been afforded to the six million Colombians who have fled their homes during that country’s 40-year conflict, most of whom have fled since 2000 as result of the nation’s war on drugs. At least four million people in Iraq are internally displaced, and in South Sudan, over three million people live in refugee camps as the nation’s civil war drags on. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 2.7 million are displaced, also as result of civil wars and continued military actions. And one and a half million Ukrainians are displaced within their own country due to the civil conflict in eastern Ukraine. These numbers represent very large proportions of the total populations of each of these countries. More important, they represent children and parents living in unimaginable conditions far from their homes, jobs, and families, and often without access to adequate food, health care, or shelter from the winter.

A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, July 31, 2012.
A Syrian refugee is pictured at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, July 31, 2012.
Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Like international refugees, internally displaced people languish for long periods of time in temporary shelters and suffer the same risks of physical and sexual abuse in makeshift accommodations. Often, because of continued political violence and already poor living conditions, the displaced are subjected to forced labor, forced military recruitment, torture, and gender-based violence—in other words, the same conditions the displaced tried to escape in the first place.

Many of the settlements are far from city centers, distant from jobs, and devoid of opportunities that refugees could use to improve their conditions. For example, during the Georgian Civil War, internally displaced were generally housed in buildings (schools and hotels) in the outskirts of cities and towns—making travel to employment and access to health care and education next to impossible. Even worse, many lack safe electrical wiring, potable water, and adequate plumbing. And even when internally displaced seek shelter with friends and relatives in private homes, access to basic needs like medicine, education, food, and social support are still lacking.

Aid agencies and the Georgian government have improved living conditions in these settlements over time, but the damages caused by this humanitarian crisis are lasting; refugees in government housing also lacked access to necessary medical treatments, and were often unable to afford travel costs for work or medical treatment. Many were grief-stricken, suffered from stress disorders due to the loss of family members from violence, and experienced social isolation due to their physical distance from cities and towns. Even after 15 years, many internally displaced Georgians have been unable to rebuild their social networks, vital links that often provide social support and employment. Likewise, Syrian refugee camps provide few services for their inhabitants—few have access to medical care or adequate shelter, and residents experience high levels of physical and sexual violence.

A boy who fled a war across the border in Sudan's Blue Nile state waits in a queue outside a clinic in Doro refugee camp, March 9, 2012.
A boy who fled a war across the border in Sudan's Blue Nile state waits in a queue outside a clinic in Doro refugee camp, March 9, 2012.
Hereward Holland / Reuters


Helping internally displaced people is difficult; there is no internationally agreed upon convention about how to aid such refugees. The United Nation’s 1998 Guiding Principles On Internal Displacement outlines human rights for the internally displaced, establishing international standards for their treatment and guaranteeing their right for humanitarian assistance, food, medical care, and shelter. The document, however, does not have the force of law behind it—rendering it all but toothless when it comes to enforcing its tenets.

This stands in contrast to the conventions on refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, which provides leadership and coordination for the international response to refugee situations, does not have a core mandate to help the internally displaced, since such help could impede national sovereignty. When governments lack the resources, skills, or political will to protect their own people, however, the international community has a moral obligation to step in. The UN should lead an international effort to create a more authoritative document than the Guiding Principles to ensure the protection of the internally displaced. Therefore, the UN should revise its original charter and other treaties to lead a global effort to reestablish peace and improve the human security of all people fleeing violence regardless of their location. Although concerns about sovereignty are warranted, armed conflict rarely stays local, and boundaries should not influence humanitarian intervention. 

The world has changed in ways that the UN mandate did not account for when it was drafted after World War II. The terms and designations it provides for migrants and refugees are out of date, and they create artificial boundaries that keep help from going to those who need it the most. Continuing to turn a blind eye toward internally displaced refugees means condemning millions of people to violence, humiliation, and deprivation on a daily basis. Refugee camps have created an underclass of individuals who grow up without basic human rights. They have fostered extremism as well. Internally displaced people might seem like a distant problem for affluent countries—but problems today generally don’t stay local. 

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  • BETH MITCHNECK is a Professor of Geography at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.
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