An IDP No More? Exploring the Issue of When Internal Displacement Ends

April 22, 2002

Over the past decade, the term “internally displaced person” (IDP) has entered the international lexicon and gained wide currency to denote persons forcibly displaced within their countries. It is generally understood that a person becomes internally displaced when s/he is forced or obliged to flee or to leave his or her home or place of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or human-made disasters, but remains within her or his country of origin. It also has come to be widely recognized that the factual situation of being internally displaced tends to create particular needs and vulnerabilities requiring special attention. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement seek to address these needs by spelling out the various norms relevant to providing protection and assistance in all phases of internal displacement. Yet, while there exists considerable awareness of when internal displacement begins and what special needs it entails for the affected persons, the issue of when internal displacement ends or, in other words, when an IDP ceases to be considered as such, has been unclear.

While some actors and organizations have begun to make determinations of when internal displacement ends, calculations tend to be ad hoc, arbitrary and made on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in the absence of common criteria on this issue, the methodologies used and, consequently, the conclusions reached, differ among actors, often significantly. Increasingly, organizations working in the field, governments framing policies and programmes for IDPs, and those preparing statistics, are pointing to the need for consensus and specific criteria on determining when displacement ends.

To address this critical question, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has turned to the Representative of the Secretary-General (RSG) on IDPs. The Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, in an official request to the RSG on IDPs, requested his advice and guidance “indicating when generically an individual would not only become an IDP but when he/she should no longer be considered under this category.” Though “the question is not new,” the Deputy ERC noted, “the answer has hitherto been quite elusive. Operational demands, however, increasingly dictate the requirement for a coherent response.” In response to that request and in consultation with OCHA, the Representative suggested that a first step would be to convene a small group of experts from international organizations and research institutions to examine the issues involved and identify steps for further action. This paper has been prepared with a view to helping to guide and stimulate the discussions.