Research scholarship on internal displacement is scarce and fragmentary. Peer-reviewed journal articles and books on internal displacement and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are surprisingly few. Certainly, their limited range offers a particularly stark contrast to the enormous mass of parallel research produced on refugee issues, especially after the surge of interest in researching refugees since the 2015 European refugee ‘crisis’.
As a related symptom of the lack of academic interest on internal displacement, consider how many research centres exist now on refugees: off-hand, I can think of at least a dozen. By contrast, since the closure of the Brookings IDP project in 2015, there is no academic research institution dedicated to issues of internal displacement, nor even one that engages consistently with the phenomenon (although the Internal Displacement Research Programme is trying to fill that gap).
The same trend is evident in research funding applications and results. For instance, of the 28 excellent projects funded under the UK research councils Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) ‘forced displacement’ theme, only three directly explore internal displacement – the remaining 25 principally address refugees. In part, this probably illustrates a wider lack of interest in IDPs among researchers applying for such funding. But it also corresponds with my own experience that, whilst academic funders are keen to invest in a wide range of (sometimes quite unoriginal) projects on refugees, securing support for research on internal displacement is a far greater challenge.
The impact of this apparently generalised paucity of academic interest in internal displacement is all too evident. Recent reviews of the research literature on internal displacement (for example, see here and references below) identify many centrally important themes around which significant gaps in our knowledge exist. In other words, the lack of research on IDPs does not indicate that we know this topic too well already – in fact, quite the contrary!
Why is there a gap in research on internal displacement?
So why does comparatively little research on internal displacement exist? In my research on internal displacement since 2005 and having followed the development of IDP scholarship since then, this relative lack of wider interest among academics is something that puzzles me. I find it difficult to offer a definitive explanation. In part, that may be because my main point of comparison is refugee research and that perspective clouds my view.
But, with a view to promoting reflection on this relatively under-researched area of study, I should like to suggest and address four distinct factors that may help to account for this bias. In doing so, I’ll draw on my own research about internal displacement driven by conflict or violence, as that context also seems to be the main focus for scholarly concerns about researching IDPs. However, at the outset, it is important to emphasise that internal displacement in other contexts – such as disasters, climate change, etc. – represents an even larger gap in the research literature.
Distrust of internal displacement as a constructed concept
Perhaps the research gap exists because internal displacement isn’t really a discrete ‘thing’. Along this line of thinking, some interlocutors seem to dismiss ‘internal displacement’ as merely a constructed concept – and, what is worse, one that seems to have been invented by policymakers rather than academics!
It is certainly true that internal displacement overlaps with other strands of population movement, such as internal migration and refugee flows. But does that mean it is less distinctive, or of less intrinsic value, than other forms of mobility? Of course not! Internal displacement is clearly no less real than are other strands of movement (including ‘migration’) – all of which are inherently messy, overlapping social processes. Moreover, our understanding of them is likewise rooted in constructed concepts – such as ‘economic migration’, ‘refugee flows’ etc. – that are abstract, limited and fuzzy around the edges. Evidently, the utility of any such concepts should instead be judged by the extent to which they help us describe and understand empirical phenomena.
In conflict contexts, this includes the movement of people within their countries due to violence, i.e. ‘internal displacement’. For these scenarios, at the very least, the best available data give a useful indication of the sheer scale of this empirical phenomenon. Indeed, even before you add in the many millions of disaster IDPs, the latest estimate is of 8.5 million new internal displacements driven by conflict or violence in 2019 alone (compared to 2.4 million new refugees in the same year). That is a substantial figure – and 2019 was not an anomaly. In short, it is plain that internal displacement does not exist only in the imagination of policymakers, but rather it is an important real-life consequence of conflict and violence – and thus worthy of our understanding.
Rejection of the distinctiveness of internal displacement (part 2!)
Still on the ‘distinctiveness’ point, some researchers seem to reject the idea of adopting a specific focus on internal displacement on the grounds that there is nothing intrinsically special about IDPs. On this view, IDPs tend to be seen merely as a part of a wider mass of ‘poor’ or ‘conflict-affected’ populations. When the claim is made by refugee researchers, an implicit contrast is usually drawn with the assumed particular vulnerabilities of refugees.
Clearly, IDPs can be part of both poor and conflict-affected populations. But that does not mean their situation cannot also be distinguished in certain ways from such wider populations (including refugees). Indeed, existing research suggests that IDPs in many conflict-affected countries tend to be distinctively worse off than non-IDPs, including refugees, in terms of health and poverty outcomes. This disadvantage appears to be due to several factors that conspire to make the experience of internal displacement relatively distinctive:
- IDPs are usually from poorer zones where conflict clusters – as such, they were often poor before displacement and tend to have suffered direct exposure to violence;
- Unlike those who stay put in their homes in those zones, they suffer major losses of home, livelihood options and property, as well as community and family support;
- The impact of the conflict on the country means that their economic, health, security and living conditions are usually more precarious than those of refugees;
- Attention to IDPs tends to be comparatively less than for refugees, due to the greater ‘international’ profile of refugees; and
- IDPs’ increased poverty and poorer physical and mental health outcomes also appear to be long-lasting effects, even after the conflict ends.
Let me be clear that the point here is not to set up hierarchies of virtue or suffering between IDPs and non-IDPs (nor is it to suggest that refugees or non-IDPS are not important – of course, they are!). It is simply to say that the existence of a distinctive confluence of empirical factors suggests that the experience of conflict-driven IDPs is not identical to that of non-IDPs. Crucially, that difference is also one that seems to have a significant everyday impact on important aspects of people’s lives.
Fears that researching IDPs will undermine asylum
In some academic circles, and particularly among refugee researchers, the hesitancy to engage with issues of internal displacement is based on fears that this might play into the refugee containment agenda of states in the Global North. In short, these scholars worry that the ‘usual suspect’ states in the Global North will see promoting attention to internal displacement (and providing assistance or protection to IDPs) as a way to keep potential refugees ‘trapped’ in the Global South as IDPs. Surely researchers should not connive in undermining the institution of asylum in this way!
When this apprehension first began to be expressed some 20 years ago, it may have seemed feasible. But reality has since intervened to suggest a need for reconsideration. Firstly, the academic fear unpalatably sidesteps the real-life consequences for IDPs of ignoring their plight. Moreover, in this regard, data from several countries in conflict suggest that the profiles of IDPs and those refugees who arrive in the Global North are quite distinct. As such, protecting IDPs is unlikely to dissuade movement by those who are more likely to come North as refugees; and protecting refugees in the North is unlikely to help the vast majority of those who end up as IDPs.
Secondly, subsequent practice by Global North states makes it self-evident that they really do not need to dissuade refugee arrivals by making costly investments in IDP protection in countries of origin, when they can far more easily impose visas and travel bans to stop flights, use interception to stop boat arrivals and impose procedural obstacles to stop those who do arrive from securing refugee status, as many of these states have done fairly consistently over the past 20 years. Against this backdrop, the idea that promoting the IDP issue is what will ultimately be responsible for any eventual death of asylum seems somewhat questionable.
Academic agendas are set principally by Global North concerns
A different kind of explanation may be that this lack of interest among academics is not due to some drawback to the topic of internal displacement itself, but rather that it reflects – and indeed says something about – the way in which broader research agendas are set in our field of study. Certainly, it is no secret that academic research agendas are shaped, in part at least, by wider societal interests, refracted through such diverse and powerful lenses as the mass media and research funding priorities set by governments and private institutions, particularly in the Global North.
The issue here is that, in today’s world, over 99% of conflict-driven IDPs live in low- or middle-income countries in the Global South. As an apparently ‘far away’ problem for powerful states in the Global North, IDPs are simply not a priority in the same way as refugees, which directly affect countries in the Global North as well as the South. My concern, though, is that the disproportionate interest in refugees on the part of states in the Global North is paralleled by the dominance of refugee issues (and particularly those in the Global North) on the research agenda in our field. Does the relative exclusion of internal displacement from research agendas in this field merely reflect the extent to which we end up mirroring the direct interests of powerful Global North states after all?
In this respect, it is telling that, whereas Global South scholars are a distinct minority in the published literature on refugees, the recent contributions of Global South scholars to published literature on IDPs are far more notable, particularly in the disciplines of law and in the medical and health sciences. Put bluntly, might the apparent lack of academic interest in internal displacement be simply a lack of interest in this topic among Global North scholars, thereby illustrating one concrete way in which the priorities and concerns of the Global North dominate research agendas in the forced migration field? In itself, though, that is not a valid reason to ignore research on internal displacement.
How can we address that gap in research?
As far as I can make out, the above reasons may help to explain why researchers are reluctant to engage with the issue of internal displacement – but they are not good reasons.
Rather, for both scholarship and policy, internal displacement presents a broad range of live issues that merit being treated by researchers with the importance that they truly possess. Indeed, the distinctive situation in which internal displacement places people, as well as wider questions about culture, citizenship, identity and so on that internal displacement generates, are relevant not just for humanitarian and development policy, but also for a broader set of key debates in the arts, humanities and social and medical sciences.
More research is definitely needed. And it is with the idea of helping to promote, support and disseminate such research that the Internal Displacement Research Programme (IDRP) was established last year as an academic centre at the University of London.
A sample of its many research activities can be seen on the IDRP website. They include the regional research networks on internal displacement and affiliated online training programmes supported in Africa (led by Dr Romola Adeola), in Latin America (led by Dr Beatriz Sánchez and Dr Clara Atehortúa) and in the Middle East (led by Dr Hana Asfour), drawing on small network grants awarded through the collaborative GENIDA (EP/T003227/1) and INDCaP (AH/T005351/1) projects.
But the IDRP also facilitates publication of research on IDPs – why not have a look at the IDRP Working Papers Series or even consider submitting a piece to this new blog series on internal displacement?
D.J. Cantor & J. Apollo Ochieng, ‘Internal Displacement, Internal Migration and Refugee Flows: Connecting the Dots’ (2020) 39(4) Refugee Survey Quarterly 647.
D.J. Cantor & A. Woolley, ‘Internal Displacement and Responses at the Global Level: A Review of the Scholarship’ (2020) 1 Internal Displacement Research Programme Working Paper Series 1.
D.J. Cantor, J. Swartz & B. Roberts, ‘Discussion Paper: Health and Internal Displacement: A Review’ (2021) Academy of Medical Sciences-IDRP Roundtable
David researches on the legal and practical protection of refugees and IDPs and has published widely in books and peer-review journals. His extensive field research across Latin America, including in Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, won the Times Higher Education Research of the Year Award in 2017-18. He has advised and trained governments from Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Europe and Latin America. He was recently seconded part-time to the UNHCR Americas Bureau as its Principal Advisor. David is current Editor-in-Chief of the Refugee Survey Quarterly journal and the Brill International Refugee Law book series. He also co-founded the first and only distance-learning MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies, with over 300 students from humanitarian practice all over the world.
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