When Does Internal Displacement End?

February 8, 2003

To be the last speaker after a busy and most stimulating couple of days normally may not be a coveted slot on a programme. However, in this case, the subject lends itself well to its placement on the agenda. Specifically, my presentation focuses on the question: when does internal displacement end? By this, I should clarify that the issue is not when will the global crisis of internal displacement cease to exist (though clearly that is goal). Rather, it is a question of when should internally displaced persons no longer be considered as such.

Some might query whether it is too early to even be asking this question. It is only in very recent years, after all, that awareness and concern has been raised of the plight of internally displaced persons, their specific needs and vulnerabilities, and that focused attention has begun to be devoted to developing effective international and national responses. There are, however, a number of compelling reasons for addressing this question.

  • Organizations and researchers engaged in compiling IDP statistics need to know when to stop counting. They point out that one of the reasons why it has been difficult to reach agreement on IDP figures has been the lack of clarity on when an IDP should cease to be considered as such. This was, for instance, a topic of considerable discussion at the last international seminar on internal displacement held in Norway, in November 2001. It also has come up in several sessions of this meeting.

Operational agencies, NGOs and of course Governments require data on the number of internally displaced in order to formulate programmes and policies addressing their needs. Yet, because of varying interpretations as to when displacement ends, the figures they use often differ dramatically, impeding a coordinated approach.

Third, because such programmes inevitably cease in the event of decisions that displacement has ended, leading displaced populations to effectively disappear as a specific group of concern, it is critical to understand the basis on which such decisions are made and the extent to which these decisions match objective realities on the ground.

It is also important to know when internal displacement ends in order to know at which point national as well as international responsibility, attention and resources, should shift from a specific focus on the needs and vulnerabilities of internally displaced persons to a more holistic, community-wide approach supporting rehabilitation and development for societies as a whole.

Certainly, internally displaced persons themselves are entitled to know when the entitlements and benefits, as well as any risks and restrictions, that their designation as such entails, will end.

Moreover, bringing to an end for internally displaced persons their often really very tragic and precarious state of existence surely must be an ultimate goal shared by all those concerned with their plight. Indeed, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that “displacement shall last no longer than required by the circumstances” (Principle 6.3). Understanding what these circumstances are, and when displacement can and should be considered to end, therefore is actually very important for the application of the Principles themselves.

Clearly, answering the question of when displacement ends is not simply an academic exercise; it can have a tremendous impact on the lives of internally displaced persons and respect for their rights.

In very recent years, there has emerged a keen interest among a variety of different actors engaged with internally displaced persons to address the issue of when, in any particular situation, the phenomenon of internal displacement can be considered to have ended. I take it as a sign that this is a shared interest among several of you here today, not only that I was invited to speak on this topic but that so many of the papers presented in the parallel sessions have touched on this theme. Indeed, it strikes me that the question of when internal displacement ends is an issue that strikes a chord with virtually all of the stated research themes to be addressed at this conference:

  • the concept of internally displaced person
  • causes of internal displacement
  • livelihood strategies
  • local integration and the relationship of displaced persons with host populations
  • issues of identity: how displaced persons see themselves and how others see them
  • the relationship between the places where displaced are located and places they fled from
  • even the relationship between internally displaced and migrants and refugees abroad

Accordingly, it seems to be an issue that could usefully be integrated into the future agenda for research that has been taking shape in the course of this conference. Before pinpointing specific suggested aspects of this issue in need of further scholarship, let us consider the current state of the art.


Simply put, decisions on when internal displacement ends are made, if at all, on an ad hoc and arbitrary basis. Moreover, the methodologies used and, consequently, the conclusions reached, differ among actors, often dramatically. To give just one example: the Global IDP Database reports that estimates of the number of internally displaced persons in Guatemala range from zero to a quarter of a million. Increasingly, organizations working in the field or engaged in the compilation of statistics are pointing to the need for consensus and specific criteria on determining when an internally displaced person should cease to be considered as such.

In response to these requests, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has turned to the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons for advice and guidance “indicating when generically an individual would not only become an IDP but . . . should no longer be considered under this category.” Though “the question is not new,” OCHA noted, “the answer has hitherto been quite elusive. Operational demands, however, increasingly dictate the need for a coherent response.”


Starting last spring, the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement began to explore the issue, working in collaboration with Georgetown University?s Institute for the Study of International Migration. After preliminary research undertaken through a desk study, we circulated a discussion paper as well as a legal commentary on the issue, followed by an options paper. These documents provided the basis for consultations convened in Washington and Geneva with international agencies, international and local NGOs and researchers to discuss different options for approaching the issue of when displacement ends. These and other documents prepared in connection with this research project are available on our website.

Allow me to explain the three different lenses through which we first looked at this issue and then briefly describe the actual picture that has begun to come into focus.

1. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

The first lens through which we examined the issue was the main point of reference for all of our work: the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Guiding Principles, which spell out the rights and guarantees pertaining to internally displaced persons in all phases of displacement, do not contain a cessation clause as to their application. This was not an oversight on the part of the drafting team but a deliberate decision. It was determined by the fact that the definition of “internally displaced persons” used in the Guiding Principles is not declaratory but is descriptive in nature, denoting the factual situation of being displaced within one’s country rather than conferring a legal status to be granted, much less revoked. This does not preclude states or other actors from introducing administrative measures, such as registration for the purposes of proving entitlement to special assistance targeting IDPs. However, from the standpoint of international law, such registration processes have no bearing on the descriptive reality of being internally displaced. Because being an “internally displaced person” depends on the existence of objective facts, and not a process of legal recognition, this classification in principle continues to apply to people so long as the factual situation of internal displacement continues to exist.

An end to internal displacement would therefore be contingent on a change in the factual situation that the term denotes. For instance, if an internally displaced person flees or migrates to another country, he or she ceases, by definition, to be in a situation of internal displacement and instead becomes a refugee, migrant or national of another country, whatever the case may be.

For those persons who remain in their country of origin, the Guiding Principles envisage three possible solutions to their situation of internal displacement:

  • Return to their home areas or place of habitual residence
  • Integration in the localities where they go to once displaced
  • Resettlement in another part of the country

The Guiding Principles specify a responsibility on the part of the national authorities to facilitate these three solutions and further stipulate a number of conditions to be met:

  • Return or resettlement must occur voluntarily and in “safety and dignity” (Principle 28)
  • Those returning or resettling must not suffer discrimination as a result of having been displaced and in particular must have the right to participate fully and equally in public affairs, and to have equal access to public services (Principle 29.1)
  • Furthermore, the authorities have a duty to assist internally displaced persons to recover or receive compensation for property and possessions destroyed or of which they were dispossessed as a result of their displacement (Principle 29.2)

These additional provisions suggest that return or resettlement requires much more than simply the physical movement of returning or resettling.

2. The Refugee Experience by Analogy and Implication

The second lens through which to examine the issue was to consider what the refugee experience offered by way of analogy. Refugee law, after all, does contain cessation clauses in Article 1C of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which stipulate six circumstances under which an individual would no longer be eligible for refugee status and the international protection it affords. Of all the grounds mentioned, only paragraph 5, allowing for cessation if “the circumstances in connection with which [s/]he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist”, could be applied to internally displaced persons by analogy. Even then, however, this provision concerns the cessation of a legal status, which, as noted earlier, is a concept alien to international law on internal displacement as well to human rights generally, on which the Guiding Principles are largely based.

Though analogies with refugee law therefore are not very helpful to the discussion of when internal displacement ends, our findings suggest that it is nonetheless very important to recognize the possible implications that application of the cessation clause for refugees can have on the temporal nature of internal displacement.

On the one hand, application of the cessation clauses for refugees can and often has led to an automatic assumption that internal displacement has ended as well. For instance, UNHCR&339;s decision to end refugee status for Mozambican refugees worldwide as of 31 December 1996 was a decisive factor in the determination that there were no longer any internally displaced persons in the country. Yet, that same month when the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons visited the country, he found that “despite the decision by the Government and the donor community to no longer target displaced groups, this in no way means that all internally displaced persons have returned.” Among the reasons cited by the displaced were “a lack of confidence in the durability of peace, sometimes coupled with a reluctance to return to the area where they had experienced terror.” This case suggests that the return of refugees or cessation of refugee status is not necessarily a determining factor of when internal displacement ends.

Indeed, the cessation of refugee status may actually lead to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons. For instance, refugees may be compelled to return to their country but still be unable to return home and even may be displaced anew, this time internally. This rather notoriously was the case in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement; a similar phenomenon has been occurring in Afghanistan in the context of the mass refugee returns that have been taking place over the past year.

The implications that the cessation of refugee status can have on situations of internal displacement suggests the need for an integrated and comprehensive approach to the issue of when displacement ends that takes into account the effects of such determinations on both groups of forced migrants.

3. Experiences of Internal Displacement

The third lens through which to examine the issue of when internal displacement end is, unsurprisingly, actual situations of internal displacement.

Section III of my Discussion Paper provides a number of snapshots of how this issue has been handled in different countries by Governments, international agencies and organizations engaged in compiling statistics. More case examples continue to be collected. Due to time constraints, I will simply highlight just a few of the different criteria for making decisions on when displacement ends that have been revealed though examination of these cases.

Mention already was made yesterday of the policy of the Government of Colombia to consider internally displaced persons as such for 3 months, with a possible one-time 3-month extension — and this only if they register with the Government (many are unable to do so for a number of reasons). In this case, the duration of internal displacement appears to be determined by the capacity or readiness of the Government to provide emergency humanitarian assistance. It is worth pointing out that the Constitutional Court of Colombia has challenged this provision, noting that termination of the legal condition of an internally displaced person according to Colombian law may not correspond with their actual situation on the ground.

In Croatia, internally displaced persons can be stripped of their classification as such and the benefits this entails simply for failure to complete household chores in the state-run communal centres where they are staying. In this case, the classification as “internally displaced” ends as a method of punishment, and for the most minor act of omission. In this connection, it is relevant to recall Guiding Principle 3 (2) affirming that “internally displaced persons have the right to request and to receive protection and humanitarian assistance from the [ ] authorities. They shall not be persecuted or punished for making such a request.”

Clearly, less arbitrary approaches to when internal displacement ends are required.


Our research and analysis has revealed three possible sets of criteria for determining when internal displacement ends:

1) Cause-based criteria: One way to look at the issue would be to focus on the causes of internal displacement and consider the existence of “changed circumstances” from those that had compelled flight in the first place to signal an end to displacement, ex. end to a conflict or a change in government such that there no longer is a well-founded fear of persecution.

The experience in post-conflict Bosnia and now Afghanistan, however, suggests that even when the immediate causal factors of displacement cease to exist, a durable solution to the plight of displaced persons does not necessarily follow.

In the reverse scenario, when the cause of displacement persists indefinitely, for instance when displacement is due to a conflict that appears to have no end in sight, one must ask whether it is in the best interests of the displaced to continue to consider them as such? Governments, after all, may find it politically expedient to maintain internally displaced persons in a state of limbo — unable to return in the absence of a peace settlement but equally unable to integrate — sometimes for decades, such that internally displaced persons effectively become hostages to this label. In Georgia and Azerbaijan, internally displaced persons are unable to return in the absence of a peace settlement and yet also are impeded from enjoying their full rights as citizens and integrating in the localities where they currently reside; they report being told that if they insist on their full rights as citizens, for instance to vote, while displaced, they will lose the right to one day return home.

These examples demonstrate how basing decisions simply on cause-based criteria can end displacement prematurely or, as the original causes persist, perpetuate a state of displacement indefinitely and to the detriment of the displaced.

2) Solutions-based criteria: Another possible approach is to place emphasis on when internally displaced persons return to their home communities or (re)settle in another community (either in the country of origin, including possibly in the locality where they have resided once displaced, or in another country).

The possibility of return is the criterion favoured by the U.S. Committee for Refugees. On this basis, USCR deemed displacement to have ended in Guatemala in 1998 (on the basis that the conflict had ended in 1996). Similarly, in mid-2002, both the Government and international agencies in Sierra Leone decided that there are no longer any internally displaced persons in the country. In both of these cases, these decisions have been strongly challenged on grounds that include: lack of safety in areas of return; inadequate reintegration assistance; the lack of property compensation for the internally displaced; the problem of illegal occupation of land; and the inability of displaced persons who returned to vote, access public services or obtain identification documents for their children.

Rwanda provides an example where the mass resettlement of internally displaced persons as part of the “villagization” programme led the UN to determine that there were virtually no internally displaced in the country. Yet, those resettled were found to lack basic services. Moreover, reports from both within and outside the UN voiced serious doubts as to the voluntariness of the operation.

These cases raise the question of whether the simple act of return or resettlement, a mere change of address, is an adequate basis on which to deem displacement to have ended?

3) Needs-based criteria: A third possible approach would look for when the needs and vulnerabilities specific to internally displaced persons and resulting from their displacement no longer exist. The displaced need not necessarily have permanently resettled or returned, and may still be in need (due to poverty or disability for instance), but they would no longer have specific needs, different from the rest of the population, which can be attributed to their displacement and which require special attention.

The Guiding Principles point to needs that would be relevant in this regard, including: the ability of internally displaced persons to access the protection and assistance of their governments; and non-discrimination in exercise of their rights, including access to public services and the right to vote.

These three sets of criteria, it must be said, are not mutually exclusively and indeed include overlapping elements. Based on our findings and the consultations held, however, the appropriate weight to give to each of these options is becoming clearer. Fundamentally, the issue of when displacement ends is emerging as one of ensuring a durable solution to internal displacement and to the specific protection and assistance needs and vulnerabilities it creates. Central to this approach is the need to define what a durable solution for internally displaced persons entails. Experience on the ground in actual situations of internal displacement, as well as the Guiding Principles, suggest that key elements include:

  • return or resettlement must be voluntary, and in safety and dignity
  • non-discrimination of returned/resettled internally displaced persons compared with rest of the population, such that there is effective reintegration
  • ability to reclaim or receive compensation for property lost as a result of displacement

In essence, then, the issue of when internal displacement ends really is about ensuring that internally displaced persons have options: to return, to resettle or to integrate locally; and that these options are effective and durable. It follows that criteria for when internal displacement ends must therefore include benchmarks as to the effectiveness and durability of solutions.


To further test this hypothesis, we have sought to broaden our research base and perspective by inviting a number researchers with different areas of relevant expertise to contribute their views on the issue, which will be published in a special issue of Forced Migration Review later this spring.

In parallel, we are continuing work on refining and further elaborating criteria on the issue, to be presented to the UN for discussion in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is comprised of the UN and other major international humanitarian, development and human rights agencies, and in which forum the issue of when internal displacement ends also has repeatedly come up.

We will also convene a meeting with donors and international financial institutions, together with selected countries affected by internal displacement, to get their perspective on the issue and refine the criteria as necessary. I must stress that in discussing with donors the issue of when displacement ends, there is a need to safeguard against an approach to the issue that is simply resource-driven and seeks an exit strategy for international programmes in support of internally displaced persons. On the contrary, even when displaced persons return, resettle or integrate locally, international attention and resources will still be needed to support the durability of these solutions which, as noted earlier, is required for the state of displacement truly to be considered to have ended. In other words, return or resettlement is really just the beginning of what will be a gradual process of reintegration that requires support; for some time after returning or resettling, internally may still have distinct needs requiring particular attention. Longer term, resources will no doubt still be needed, but could likely switch to more generic, community-wide approaches based on vulnerability rather than whether or not a person was displaced.


Our work in developing criteria for when displacement ends and reporting back to the UN with guidance as to how to approach this issue is expected to wind up in the coming months. However, even once the criteria are finalized, this should by no means be the final word on the issue. On the contrary, the challenge then becomes one of applying the criteria as a benchmark as well as a basis for advocacy in support of truly durable solutions for internally displaced persons. Indeed, to support effective application of the criteria, whole new areas of research will open up.

In keeping with the aim of this conference to identify elements of a future research agenda, strictly on the subject of when internal displacement ends, I have identified at least eight possible research questions that might follow:

1. The application of the criteria being developed will require some sort of monitoring mechanism, if only by an informal network of researchers and organizations covering the different countries of internal displacement around the world – that in of itself opens up quite a large area of potential research.

2. The criteria we are currently developing focus largely on displacement due to conflict, human rights abuses or persecution i.e. people who for the most part would be refugees if they crossed an international border. Additional criteria likely will be required for situations of displacement due to natural disasters and, separately, development. Our Project will be publishing a study this spring on development-induced displacement, which together with the work of others, including several of you at this conference, should provide a solid basis for exploring this issue in the case of development-induced displacement.

3. Further analysis of how national legislation treats the issue of when displacement ends. Some important work in this regard has begun, covering the OSCE region, but more comprehensive and systematic analysis, covering other situations of displacement would be most valuable.

4. The emerging consensus points to the critical importance of the durability of solutions for displaced persons. However, for internally displaced persons as well as refugees, there really is not a lot of information and analysis on what happens to people once they return or resettle. Assessment of the conditions upon return, resettlement or local integration is essential to determine the durability of these solutions and to identify areas where support is required to underpin them. This, in turn, should inform us further about the issue of when displacement ends.

To fill this gap, I believe, challenges us as scholars and practitioners who focus on internal displacement to not confine our concern for victims of internal displacement solely to the period while they are uprooted. To ensure that the specific needs and vulnerabilities of the internally displaced are effectively addressed in the solutions-phase will require, I would suggest, the continued engagement of persons with expertise in internal displacement, even after the displaced return home or resettle.

5. Related to this, it would be beneficial to begin to compile best practices for supporting the durability of return or resettlement as well as effective reintegration.

6. Understanding and resolving the root causes of displacement is critical to ensuring an effective end to displacement through the sustainability and long-term stability of the solutions pursued. Research into various dimensions of the root causes of displacement is a particular focus which the SAIS Center plans to dedicate itself to exploring, and seeks to establish partnerships with researchers and practitioners from countries of internal displacement.

7. There is also need to consider the influence of urbanization, whether as a mixed cause (together with conflict for instance) for the original displacement or as a reason why internally displaced persons decide not to return. In studying first-hand different situations of internal displacement, we often have found that internally displaced persons, particularly those displaced from rural areas into the city, frequently discover enhanced economic opportunities and access to public services such that they, especially the younger generation, are unwilling to return to the “way things were” before displacement, even when return becomes possible. This phenomenon warrants special attention. Our understanding of it could benefit from the expertise of researchers in demography, sociology and architecture, to name just a few disciplines.

8. The notion of “home” is complex and very personal. As one of the papers presented yesterday illustrated, it can be much more a metaphysical concept than a geographic one. Moreover, the strength of an internally displaced person’s attachment to “home” may be predominantly nostalgic rather than necessarily a reliable indicator of an intention to return to the place from which he or she was displaced. At the same time, however, the criterion of voluntariness of return or resettlement demands that the views of internally displaced persons must not be taken out of the equation altogether. Explorations into how internally displaced persons perceive themselves and the duration of their state of displacement would enrich our understanding of the issue, and from the critically important perspective of the internally displaced themselves. This would be especially important in cases of protracted displacement. The fields of anthropology and sociology would be among those perhaps well placed to make a contribution in this regard.

Developing criteria on when displacement ends therefore opens up various new areas of possible research which have a place for researchers from many different disciplines (including law, political science, anthropology, sociology, demography, architecture and statistics) as well as for a broad base of empirical evidence drawn from experiences from different situations the world over. Moreover, given the number of countries involved, filling this gap will really require a truly global network of scholars, of precisely the type this conference seeks to foster.