Blog post by Grace Benson, a PhD student at the School of International Service at American University, studying forced migration and comparative refugee resettlement policy.


A family flees their home on foot, seeking refuge at a temporary shelter over a hundred miles away. They carry only the essentials: cherished family photos, important identifying documents, and three days of food and water. They have been forced to leave their families, friends, and communities due to unrelenting violence and persecution in their homes. But upon arrival at the refugee camp, will they be labeled “refugees”? And more importantly, what services will they have access to? These questions are being asked by 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.  


The answer depends on if they have crossed an international border. The term forced migrants is a broad umbrella term that encompasses all persons who have fled their homes due to circumstances outside of their control. Within the category of forced migration, there are many different terms and legal statuses used to delineate between people. “Refugees” is often used colloquially to refer to forced migrants, yet it actually describes a specific legal status from the United Nation’s 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. According to the Convention, refugees must demonstrate that they have crossed an international border due to targeted persecution based on certain criteria (race, religion, nationality, a recognized social group, or political opinion). People in the process of applying for refugee status are referred to as asylum-seekers.  


Infographic that provides UNHCR’s definition of three broad categories of displaced persons.


It is important to note who does not fall under the label “refugee.” People who are fleeing generalized violence in their home countries, such as ongoing civil wars, are not automatically given refugee status. People who are fleeing dire economic circumstances, who are starving and cannot support themselves, are not necessarily refugees. People who are fleeing natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, or hurricanes are not legally labeled refugees either. With increasing natural disasters due to climate change, the global number of displaced persons is expected to increase, yet international law does not recognize climate refugees.  


Internally displaced persons (IDPs) may have endured similar persecution and human rights abuses as refugees but have not crossed an international border. IDPs are often prevented from crossing an international border because they live in authoritarian countries that enforce strict border controls. These circumstances make it impossible for IDPs to leave, resulting in 45.7 million people in 2019 who were trapped in dangerous locations and unable to seek international protection.  


There are other categories of displaced persons as well. Trafficked persons are people who have been forced into modern-day slavery, either within or outside of country borders. It is difficult to track the number of trafficked persons, but the US State Department estimated 24.9 million trafficked persons around the world in 2019. Similar to trafficked persons, stateless persons are not defined by country borders. Stateless persons do not have citizenship in any country and therefore are often prevented from seeking basic protection or accessing human rights, such as health care or education.  


The number of people in each category of displaced persons differs by millions. The pie chart reflects the average number of people in each category from 2000-2019, using data from UNHCR. IDPs compose the largest population of displaced persons, with an average of 19.54 million people internally displaced between 2000-2019.  


A pie chart showing proportions of displaced persons by category (average 2000-2019). Data from UNHCR.


What happens to refugees vs. IDPs?


Durable solutions” refers to the three internationally recognized options for people with refugee status. Refugees can be returned to their home countries, naturalized in the country where they have sought asylum, or resettled to a third country. As evident from the pie chart, however, a very small percentage of refugees achieve permanent homes through these durable solutions. What happens to the rest of the refugee population? These people spend years waiting in countries of asylum, in temporary homes or refugee camps. Estimates of the average amount of time waiting for resettlement ranges from 2 years to 20 years.  


Media coverage of displaced persons often focuses on refugees who have been permanently resettled or who are waiting in refugee camps for resettlement. Yet this does not reflect the clear majority of displaced persons: internally displaced people. Almost half of all displaced persons are IDPs, who do not have the same options available to them for resettlement since they have not crossed an international border. Unlike refugees, IDPs have no established legal process for demonstrating a history of persecution and seeking international protection. And despite the overwhelming number of IDPs, refugees receive over five times more international aid than IDPs.  


Some might argue that unlike refugees, IDPs are still within their home country and could return to their homes more quickly and easily. This is not necessarily true. Internal displacement has become increasingly protracted, with 90% of IDPs displaced for more than 10 years. IDPs have been forced to leave their homes due to similar circumstances as refugees and are often unable to return.  


The critical need to prioritise IDPs


International law, policies, and humanitarian aid organizations must shift their focus to prioritize IDPs. Refugees receive more international aid, public attention, and humanitarian support, despite there being nearly twice as many IDPs as refugees in 2019. IDPs are comparatively inaccessible since they are still within their countries of origin, and norms of state sovereignty and problems of access inhibit international support and humanitarian action. This growing problem must be addressed urgently.  


A line graph showing change in number of displaced persons by category between 2009-2019. Data from UNHCR.


The graph pictured reflects the change in numbers of displaced persons over time, with the number of IDPs increasing exponentially in the last twenty years. These figures demonstrate a growing and urgent international crisis that has been exacerbated by Covid-19. Covid-19 has amplified existing vulnerabilities in IDP populations, such as disproportionately high rates of unemployment, violence, and mortality. International humanitarian aid must move beyond a narrow focus on addressing the needs of refugees to consider the increasing population of internally displaced persons.  


The first step is recognizing the urgent need to address this humanitarian crisis. The international community must broaden its view of forced migrants in order to implement sufficient services to support IDPs. Options for increasing support for IDPs include broader identification methods, increasing funding for IDP camps, and creating and implementing international law and norms to protect IDPs. Furthermore, UNHCR should create “durable solutions” or pathways for IDPs to relocate and resettle long-term. Broadening the scope of persons who require international protection to better support IDPs is essential, urgent, and long overdue.      



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.