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Internal Displacement: A problem greater than acknowledged

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

“Shelter from tarps and sticks'' [] by trokilinochchi. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license [].

By the end of 2021, there were a total of 89.3 million displaced persons in the world, of which 53.2 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs)[1]. When contrasting this figure with the total number of refugees, 36 million, it can be surprising that the international protections granted to IDPs in the form of binding covenants and dedicated institutions does not extend to the former. While the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assure refugees legal and institutional support, the governance of IDP matters is left to the concerned national authorities[2]. This article critically examines the rationale for formal differentiations between refugees and IDPs and the lacunae that persist on the international stage with respect to internal displacement, while arguing for increased international visibility to the matter.

IDPs in International Law

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights defines Internally Displaced Persons as those who have left their place of habitat in order to safeguard their basic human rights but, unlike refugees, have not crossed international borders for the same[3]. In 2021, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) tracked 38 million people around the world as newly displaced within 46 countries due to internal conflicts and climate disasters[4].

There are few international legal and institutional systems in place for IDP protection and resettlement. The excessive focus on refugees and the fear of infringing upon state sovereignty have led international organizations and regimes to leave chief responsibility for IDPs to national governments. Nevertheless, in 1998, the UN adopted a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GPID) to set basic standards for the treatment of IDPs. However, despite being the foremost international instrument on the issue, the GPID is non-binding, suffers from non-specificity and is in need of revision.[5] The absence of binding laws on internal displacement has been justified on the grounds that international interventions could generate conflicts if they interfere with state sovereignty. The primacy of state sovereignty has, for long, been the primary reason why IDP matters are left to the states to legislate upon and enforce[6]. Furthermore, unlike refugee issues, which are handled by the UNHCR, IDP matters are not institutionally supported by any one agency. Several agencies come together to handle IDP matters and past attempts to set up one dedicated institution to handle them failed to find enough support on the international stage[7]. Hence, primary law/policy-making and institutional responsibilities in the case of IDPs fall on the shoulders of sovereign states. While some states and/or regional organizations have utilized this responsibility to establish hard laws to govern IDP matters within their ambit, it has led to inadequate laws and policies to address R&R, bureaucratic red tape, and weak accountability in others[8].

The Indian Case

In 2021, 5 million people were displaced by internal conflicts and climate disasters in India, the latter contributing to almost 99% of this figure. The unabating large number of IDPs in the country, which is, notably, a non-signatory of the widely ratified 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, indicates that it has fared poorly in formally addressing forced displacement[9].

Up until 2013 the only law governing the rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs in the country was the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Inherited from India’s colonial past, the act, mainly, detailed the conditions under which a government could acquire private land and details of how and when compensations were to be granted. To expand the scope of displacement laws, in 2013, the Indian government passed The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR, 2013). While this act explicitly addressed the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of IDPs and increased the amount and ambit of compensation owed to displaced persons[10], like its predecessor, it left the R&R of IDPs to individual states. The Act also leaves room for government decisions that favor private entities, and the mechanism recommended for determining compensation is vague, creating scope for litigation which generally favors the rich.[11] The practical downsides of such fragile laws can be observed from the displacement issues facing the country.

For example, in 2008, a massive road development project resulted in the displacement of over 350 families in and around the Moolampilly village in the South Indian state of Kerala. A decade later, in 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with several of the affected families, many of whom felt that their rehabilitation remained incomplete. Many of the affected revealed that the initial proposals for their rehabilitation included compensation in the form of land for resettlement, jobs for the young, and other monetary incentives. However, they felt that implementation of these steps were slow and, often, caught in bureaucratic red tape. Many felt that simply having laws/policies which clearly lay down what is to be included in the compensation package for effective rehabilitation of the displaced could have avoided such issues. Furthermore, the Moolampilly displacement case revealed an alarming pattern: every time a new state government was elected, once every five years in India, the rehabilitation efforts seemed to hit a block due to political conflicts. The absence of one non-state institution responsible for the resettlement of the displaced, hence, led to a situation where political events, like elections, majorly affected R&R efforts.

The Need for Greater International Attention to IDPs

As observed from the example of India’s policies on IDPs, the absence of accountable figures on the international scene has made it easier for the responsibility of accountability to be shifted from the national government to the state governments. My discussions with the affected in Moolampilly, however, revealed that primary accountability in the case had shifted from the state government to local authorities. This transfer of accountability thus appears to be the foremost problem facing the governance of IDP matters. As mentioned at the beginning, there is no one international institution or one binding international covenant in charge of IDP issues. Internal displacement, as such, is still viewed through blurred lenses that see conflict- and disaster-induced movement of people but does not acknowledge development-induced movement as a major contributor to the increasing IDP numbers.

Above all, the continuing differentiation between refugees and IDPs, which is based purely upon the geographical path they take while fleeing human rights violations, indicates that a radical reframing of displacement laws is in order. Binding laws and an independent institution handling IDP matters must be created so as to establish a strong line of accountability in such cases. It is time that the UN and other international organizations realized that state sovereignty must not be guaranteed at the stake of human rights. Moreover, IDP matters deserve to occupy a much bigger space in international deliberations than they are afforded now.

Endnotes: [1] “Global Figures”, Norwegian Refugee Council, accessed September 20, 2022, [2] Francis Mading Deng, "The Global Challenge of Internal Displacement the Institute for Global Legal Studies Inaugural Colloquium: The UN and the Protection of Human Rights," Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 5 (2001): 141-156. [3] United Nations, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Geneva: Commission on Human Rights,1998). [4] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2022 (2022), accessed August 24, 2022, And Notably, the IDMC’s numbers do not account for the persistent concern that is development-induced displacement, i.e., displacement caused by development projects. For example, construction of dams, reservoirs, and hydropower plants are projects that cause widespread displacement around the world. See: Terminski, 2013. [5] David James Cantor, "‘The IDP in International Law’? Developments, Debates, Prospects," International Journal of Refugee Law 30, no. 2 (2018): 191-217. [6] Deng, “The Global Challenge,” 143-145. [7]Ibid, 150” [8] The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, more commonly known as the Kampala Convention, is one such positive instance. The Convention derives from and expands upon the GPID to include additional provisions, which increase accountability and ensure adequate redressal. See: African Union, 2009. [9] “Global Report on Internal Displacement 2022” [10] Government of India, The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013 (New Delhi: 2013). [11] Kalim Siddiqui, "Development Induced Displacement of Rural Communities in India: A Critical Review," Turkish Economic Review 5, no. 2 (2018): 226-39.


African Union. African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. Kampala: 2009.

Cantor, David James. "‘The IDP in International Law’? Developments, Debates, Prospects." International Journal of Refugee Law 30, no. 2 (2018): 191-217.

Deng, Francis Mading. "The Global Challenge of Internal Displacement the Institute for Global Legal Studies Inaugural Colloquium: The UN and the Protection of Human Rights." Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 5 (2001): 141-56.

Dhanmanjiri Sathe. "Larr 2013: What Does It Deliver?." In Land and Livelihoods in Neoliberal India, edited by Deepak K. Mishra and Pradeep Nayak, 249-64. Singapore: Springer

Singapore, 2020.

Government of India. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013. New Delhi: 2013.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Global Report on Internal Displacement 2022. 2022. Accessed August 24, 2022.

Norwegian Refugee Council. "Global figures." Accessed September 20, 2022.

Siddiqui, Kalim. "Development Induced Displacement of Rural Communities in India: A Critical Review." Turkish Economic Review 5, no. 2 (2018): 226-39.

Terminski, Bogumil. “Introduction- a brief overview of contemporary involuntary migrations.” In Development-Induced Displacement and Resettlement: Theoretical Frameworks and Current Challenges, 5-25. Geneva: 2013.

United Nations. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Geneva: Commission on Human Rights, 1998.

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