Behind the Refugee Crisis, the Internally Displaced Wait Their Turn
November 20, 2015
At last, the world has woken up to one of the biggest challenges of our age. We are witnessing massive movements of people on an unprecedented scale. And while the current focus on migrants and refugees is welcome, it risks obscuring an equally worrying trend of people displaced within their own countries.
Just look at the numbers. So far this year, more than half a million people have journeyed to Europe’s doorstep seeking asylum. 13 million people are officially recognized as refugees who are living in camps dotted around the world. But as shocking as these figures are, they pale in comparison to the number of people who are internally displaced.
Internally displaced persons (known as IDPs) include a staggering 59 million people -people who have to flee their homes and communities but remain within their own country, sometimes in official camps, but often living on the streets or informal settlements. Some people are displaced by conflict, some by natural disasters. Some flee persecution others seek economic opportunity. Often it’s a combination of factors that finally forces people to leave behind all that is familiar in the hope of a better, safer, life elsewhere. And they need our help as much, if not more, than those who come knocking at rich countries’ doors.
I should know. As a refugee from Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1980s, I was forced to leave first my home — living as an IDP for six years — and eventually my country in search of stability. And in my current work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I see people engaged in the same grim calculus, whether in their own countries or not: is it going to remain safe here? Do my children have a future?
And yet, despite similar needs and a booming population of IDPs, support for them has not changed in decades. It is still rooted in basic humanitarian emergency response rather than a commitment for long-term integration with new communities — whether that’s possible within their country or elsewhere.
This failure to invest has only perpetuated the current migration crisis in Europe. If we have learned anything it is this: today’s IDPs are tomorrow’s refugees.
Many of the people now desperately trying to cross into the EU fled their homes months, sometimes years, ago and settled initially in relatively more secure parts of their homelands in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. But the conflicts continued and spread. With no better future in sight, people are now abandoning their countries altogether.
For example, six million people have been uprooted by the war in Syria. But only two million are registered refugees in neighboring countries. The rest are displaced within the country. As the crisis drags on, these people begin to plan and strategize where to go and how to get there.
In Yemen, people don’t have even that dreadful choice. In August 2015, the IDMCrecorded that over one million internally displaced people in Yemen are either living in makeshift homes on the street, with host families, or within UN managed camps. For now they are stuck. But if that changes we could see another exodus.
Preventing these sudden mass movements of people clearly requires addressing the root causes of their desire to flee. But it also means doing much more to better support those who are uprooted within their own borders.
Simply keeping people alive — providing food, water, shelter — is of course essential at the onset of a crisis. But over time host governments and international aid partners should make sensible assessments that focus on long-term needs in order to break the cycle of dependence.
If we want to stem the flow of people across borders we must offer them dignity and a viable future within their countries of origin. That means focusing on their personal and professional development and integration into local communities.
This also means building for the long-term. Schools, medical clinics, and job placement centers all too often conceived as temporary stop-gaps must be formalized, linked to national systems and measured against international standards.
Some development agencies are beginning to work this way, but complicated regulations and limited funding have not made it easy to make the shift. Where I work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, few development agencies operate with the multi-year funding strategies which would enable long-term planning, while cumbersome donor regulations also discourage deeper engagement with local communities.
These long-term measures are clearly not going to work in active war zones such as Syria. But we need to be ready to act as soon as the violence ebbs, stepping in to help the internally displaced rebuild their lives where they are rather than join the desperate and often doomed scramble for security on some foreign shore.
Abraham Leno, a former refugee in Guinea, is a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. He currently works as the country representative for the American Refugee Committee in Bukavu, Congo.
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Originally published on Huffington Post