Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: What’s the Difference?

Of the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, there are over 21 million refugees and nearly twice as many internally displaced persons, or IDPs. While both groups of people have been forced to flee their homes for similar reasons, there are important distinctions that have significant implications for international humanitarian law and relief efforts.

Refugees and IDPs displaced by conflict and violence, 1990 to 2016

Refugees are people who are residing outside the country of their nationality “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted,” as defined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons remain within the borders of their countries, yet they have fled their homes, often due to conflict, violence, and persecution. Although the rights of refugees are clearly defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, there is no single legal framework providing for the protection of IDPs. Internally displaced persons remain under the protection of their national government and are protected by that country’s domestic law, but in situations of armed conflict, these individuals are protected by international humanitarian law, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Humanitarian law is integral to preventing displacement; the ICRC states that, “a widespread or systematic policy of displacement of civilians” without justification on the grounds of military necessity or civilian protection “constitutes a crime against humanity.” Under international humanitarian law, IDPs, are considered civilians and are protected from and during displacement, given that they do not engage in the conflict. While not legally binding, the UNHCR’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide comprehensive guidelines and standards regarding the protection of displaced persons, which have been widely applied by national governments, UN agencies, and regional organizations.

The primary conditions that cause internal displacement include armed conflict, violence, and human rights abuses, but additional structural factors such as poverty, socioeconomic inequality, failed governance, urbanization, and environmental degradation contribute to large scale displacement, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). It is important to acknowledge that these factors cause both internal displacement and an outflow of refugees, yet IDPs often face even more vulnerable conditions due to prolonged conflict and inefficient governments within their countries.

According to the IDMC, six of the ten countries that produced the largest number of refugees in 2015 – Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria – were also among the ten with the largest number of IDPs, which is indicative of the strong link between the factors that cause both internal displacement and refugee outflows.

Countries with high numbers of IDPs and producing significant refugee flows

Often, refugees who attempt to return home become internally displaced as a result of continued instability or conflict within their countries. The struggles of internally displaced persons are distinct, yet inextricable from those of refugees, and all nations have an obligation to actively defend the human rights of those impacted by war and persecution.

The number of IDPs is expected to substantially increase in the next decades, yet international attention and response have been largely insufficient to this global humanitarian crisis.

2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Show the world that you stand with displaced people by advocating for policies that protect the rights of the millions facing forced displacement, as well as heightened and sustained international attention and action to this crisis.

For more information regarding displaced persons and detailed global reports on internal displacement, check out the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre:

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