This post collects the conclusions reached by members of Latin American Network on Internal Displacement (LANID) after an intense debate on the internal displacement concept. The text collects ideas from Clara Ines Atehortúa Arredondo, Leticia Calderón Chelius, Sindy Hernández Bonilla, Ramón Martínez Coria, Beatriz Eugenia Sánchez-Mojica, Fabio Lozano Velásquez and Andree Viana Garcés. A translation of this post in Spanish is available here.
Fleeing to save your life. Abandoning the existence you have built and everything you have known, simply to stay alive. Seeking a new place to call home or, perhaps, keeping the keys to the home you are leaving behind, with the unspoken hope of returning there one day. This is a story almost as old as humanity, that been told uncountable times. However, since the 20th century, this narrative has been increasingly shaped by legal developments. The legal categories that have been created over time have shed light on some parts of this narrative, while casting a shadow on others.
The appearance of internal displacement in international law
After the First World War, the League of Nations created the concept of the refugee, which aimed to protect specific population groups who sought a new home in Europe after being forced to abandon their countries of origin due to armed conflicts and revolutions. This category was broadened and consolidated over the second half of the 20th century, now under the mandate of the United Nations. However, the three essential premises that underlie the first definition remained. The first of these is the international protection accorded to those whose civil and political rights have been violated and who cross a border. Such people do not have the protection of their state of origin, which by act or omission is responsible for the circumstances that caused them to flee. The second is the concern for the stability and security of host countries, which sees refugees as a vulnerable foreign population that could compete with the local population for access to scarce resources, leading to disorder that could eventually breach international borders and affect the whole region. The third premise is the recognition of the international nature of the issue of refugees, given that this involves the whole international community and not just individual states.
For decades, those people considered as refugees, under the narrow definition established by international law and implemented into domestic legal systems, were the only forced migrants to have their own legal classification and status. As such, they were the only group of forced migrants with a full existence under law, in public policy, and even in the public imagination. It was only at the end of the 1990s that a second group began to be recognised, when the United Nations established the category of internal displacement, albeit through a soft law instrument (The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement).
The creation of this new category coincided with a crisis affecting the system developed by the UN for refugee management, which had been building since the 1970s. The number of people abandoning their countries in search of international protection was increasing rapidly, while state contributions to guarantee their care were decreasing at an even faster rate. To address this situation, various initiatives were developed to encourage refugees to stay within their countries of origin. While the first proposals were not implemented, that they did raise awareness of the need for the international community to provide support to displaced groups from within their countries of origin, in order to avoid flows of refugees across borders.
In the 1990s these proposals were revisited, but this time accompanied by robust dialogue on the need to guarantee the human rights of internally displaced people, considered the most vulnerable victims in any situation of armed conflict or generalised violence. The fact that the system of refugee care had failed to achieve lasting solutions for those who had crossed international borders constituted a further argument in favour of the new proposals for action. The result of this was the formulation of the previously-mentioned Guiding Principles. This legal instrument contains a strong tension between control and protection, as a result of its twin objectives of containing displacement within states, and guaranteeing the human rights of those fleeing.
Even though protection is ostensibly a fundamental objective of the Guiding Principles, it is clear that the support model for internally displaced people based on this legal instrument has three features that make this difficult to achieve. Firstly, the fundamental responsibility for guaranteeing the rights of these people lies with those states that were not able or willing to protect them in the first place. The role assigned to the international community is completely accessory, and its scope to act to protect displaced people is very limited. Secondly, it replicates the long-term solutions model of the refugee care system, despite the evident difficulty of this model in overcoming the vulnerability of displaced people. Finally, it inhibits exploration of the deeper causes of displacement by placing the violation of the right not to be arbitrarily displaced as the centre of the problem. This right, strongly defended by the creators of the Guiding Principles, simplifies the phenomenon in question by treating the lack of protection of displaced people as essentially an issue of spatial mobility.
This international instrument offers what is considered a broad definition of internal displacement. It envisages a wide range of circumstances that can result in the violation of the right not to be displaced arbitrarily. These include armed conflicts, generalised violence, natural disasters, and even development projects. All these situations have in common the fact that they can force people to flee without necessarily crossing an international border. This emphasis on borders reinforces the idea that internal forced displacement is distinct from international displacement. This distinction makes sense from the perspective of international law, where the principle of sovereignty is essential. However, it may make it difficult to fully understand these movements, as well as to find adequate means to protect the displaced people.
The implementation of internal displacement into domestic legal systems
After its formulation in 1998, the internal displacement category was intensively disseminated by the UN, with such a degree of success that doubts are only just beginning to emerge over whether this definition truly reflects the situation it seeks to address. While it has been adopted by many states, who have structured their national policies based on this definition, they have also adapted it according to their own interests, since it is soft law in nature. For this reason, in many parts of the world, including Latin America, generalised violence and armed conflict are the only causes of internal displacement that trigger a national response. Forced migration caused by projects linked to tourism, resource extraction, or other economic activities, are placed in a separate legal category, or none at all. Nonetheless, the success of this category continues. Indeed, in those countries that have not yet developed public policies to tackle this problem, there are campaigns among civil society for it to be adopted by the authorities as a first step in the design and application of measures to protect those who face internal displacement.
More than twenty years have passed since the concept of internal displacement was formally introduced to the world. Since then, the number of people who fall into this category has continuously increased at a global level. In fact, according to the most recent report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the number of internally displaced people rose from 24.9 million in 2009 to 45.7 million in 2019. Moreover, those who enter this category have difficulty leaving it. What was initially conceived as a temporary situation seems to have become, in most cases, a permanent one.
The moment has come to ask whether this failure can be explained, at least in part, by the definition of internal displacement that has been adopted so enthusiastically. It is possible that we have been satisfied with a response that is too simple for such a complex question and, in doing so, have not attempted to understand the depth and complexity of a phenomenon that goes much further than forced migration of specific people, and involves an amalgamation of causes that go beyond armed conflict and generalised violence. It can even be questioned whether understanding this phenomenon requires us to make a distinction between displaced people who have crossed international borders and those who have not.
Opening the Pandora’s Box: Questions around the concept of internal displacement proposed by the Guiding Principles
Questioning the concept of internal displacement that has been used to date challenges us to look beyond the obvious, of the flight of population groups or individual families attributed to generalised violence or armed conflicts within the borders of individual states. It requires us to understand that this vision of internal displacement is, in reality, a closed box, which must be opened in order to illuminate the multiple factors, dynamics, and local, regional and global interests that interact to cause internal displacement, as well as the diverse and complex effects on the victims of this.
Opening this “Pandora’s Box” means facing the true nature of the upheaval caused by this phenomenon. Internal displacement is not simply a question of spatial mobility; it involves the rupture of people’s connection to territory, and in turn of the complex network of cultural, political and economic relationships that sustain individuals and communities. In particular, it affects community methods of production, transformation and marketing, which are replaced by a specific economic model.
Moreover, this requires us to recognise that we face a massive and systematic phenomenon. Although displacement can occur at the level of individuals or families, the impacts are borne by whole communities in territories which, due to their particular characteristics, are coveted for political and economic hegemonic projects. The integration of territories into such projects always requires the use of force, albeit not always armed, which is carried out by illegal, legal, and even institutional actors. The last of these, while claiming to assist displaced people, in fact take steps that reinforce their displacement. As such, displacement is never accidental. It is not secondary or collateral damage from war or confrontation between criminal groups. Instead, it is caused deliberately, and is often meticulously planned so that it extends into the long-term.
Additionally, in re-considering the definition that has been applied to internal displacement it is necessary to question the local character assigned to it. Although the term itself implies a local phenomenon, this paradigm is contradicted by the persistent occurrence of internal displacement in the most diverse regions of the world. As such, it is necessary to investigate the global dynamics and interests that contribute to internal displacement. These are based on a globalised economic model marked by consumerism and extractivism, which requires the submission of communities and peoples who historically have been situated at the margin of hegemonic powers, and have limited accesses to and control of natural resources, knowledge and cultural practices with real or potential market value. In this sense, displacement is an inevitable result of a process of colonial invasion that has been developing for decades, and appears to be strengthening and accelerating.
This profound economic dimension of internal displacement, the upheaval process, and the loss of vital fabrics have remained, however, obscure in legal terms. This is in part due to the limitation of the law itself in reflecting complex social realities, and to its need to reduce facts to abstract categories that are recognisable in legal terms. This has meant, in the case of internal displacement, the construction of a complex conceptual structure centred on the subject who has been forced to migrate and the necessity of re-establishing the enjoyment of those rights that have been violated. This construction, however, obscures the causes that have led to the displacement. As such, it prevents the establishment of links between structural problems and the expulsion of the population, reducing the causes of displacement to the broad concepts of generalised violence and armed conflict. At the same time, it suspends the existence of people in this category, placing them in a state of limbo. Displacement ceases to be a situation that they pass through, becoming a feature that defines them and denies them of the possibility of a present. They are attributed a past as empowered citizens, with full enjoyment of their rights, and a future is described for them in which their full citizenship will be returned. However, the present is empty, since they have been deprived of everything, reduced to the condition of fragile victims who lack agency.
The image transmitted by the law, while simultaneously powerful and simple, is false. Frequently, the past described above did not exist, and those labelled as displaced never in fact managed to exercise their full citizenship, or indeed enjoy many of those rights due to them according to the law. Structural problems such as poverty, inequity, racism and gender violence have prevented the exercise of these rights in practice. The promise of a restoration of the exercise of these rights in the future too often transpires to be empty. The inability of the legal structure to reflect the complexity of the causes, dynamics and interests leading to displacement, as well as to quantify the damage and pain caused by this, prevent adequate measures being found to address the problem.
Reduced to a legal category, the question as to whether someone is a displaced person becomes the responsibility of the officials and humanitarian agents in charge of their care. These individuals base their interpretation of the legal provisions on their own prejudices and experience, rather than allowing the displaced people to define themselves. The accounts of these people, which reflect the complexity of the causes that have led them to abandon their home territories, possessions and identities, are filtered through institutional logic, depriving them of their diversity and richness. The result is, once again, a cold and abstract definition that is enshrined in public policy or international instruments.
Finally, the adoption of this legal focus raises problems in that it establishes a dichotomy between displaced people and other citizens. In the Latin American context, at least, many citizens do not fully enjoy their rights, independently of whether they have been forced to migrate or not. As such, the duality created by the law is false, and seriously affects the response that has been developed for those who have been uprooted. Access to this ideal and complete citizenship is a long-term goal, in the best of cases, for the majority of the inhabitants of these countries. Placing it as the threshold to overcome displacement is, in this context, illusory.
After this reflection, the response to the question of what is meant by internal displacement seems obvious. It is not found in the legal and political definition that has been globally adopted. Despite its undeniable success in putting this issue on the map and given it a name, this definition hides, through its apparent simplicity, the deep complexity of a phenomenon that must be understood in all its dimensions. If we cannot do this, the responses we design and implement will continue to be inadequate. The time has come to open the Pandora’s Box, remembering that, as in the Greek myth, it is only once the demons have been released that we will be able to find hope.
 Sánchez-Mojica, B.E. (2009) “Cuando los derechos son la jaula. Trasplante rígido del soft law para la gestión del desplazamiento forzado” Estudios Políticos, Nº 35, p. 15
 Crisp. J. (1991). “Refugee Protection and Assistance: A system in crisis”. International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism Yearbook, 1990, Vol. III, p. 17
 Sánchez-Mojica, Op, Cit., p. 18-21
The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.