The global scale of internal displacement

Marcus Roberts
July 8, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

In 2016, which country had the highest number of its people displaced by conflict? Syria right? Wrong. Iraq? Wrong. Afghanistan? Wrong. Yemen? Wrong. Libya? Wrong. No, it's a country that does not make the news like the other countries on that list: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (Internal Displacement Monitoring Center), 922,000 citizens of the DRC fled their homes last year. This was more than Syria (824,000) and Iraq (659,000).

The difference with the DRC is that these people are mainly internally displaced, that is they are not refugees that have fled their country to a neighbouring (or not so neighbouring) country. Unlike many other conflicts in the world, thousands of Congolese are not fleeing across borders and asking questions of potential host societies about the duty to care for refugees, the best way to do so, the risk of encouraging others to come and the dangers of terrorism. Other conflicts do result in such refugees and thus get more attention.

But the conflict in the DRC is worthy of our attention. (Even if for no other reason than it gives us the opportunity to pray for, and give to, victims of it.) About 3.7 million people are internally displaced in the DRC, and the problem is getting worse: nearly 1 million have been newly displaced since the start of 2017 after violent clashes in the Kasai province in the south west of the country. There have therefore been more people displaced in the first half of 2017 than in whole of 2016. The conflict is long running - fights between various rebel groups and the government may have killed nearly six million people since the turn of the century. The current unrest is over when and how the current president, Joseph Kabila, should step down. The scale is obviously very large, but it does not make the evening news often, if at all.

While nearly a million people were internally displaced in the DRC, this is only a fraction of the global figures for 2016: over 31 million people were displaced in their own countries last year. Only seven million of those people were displaced by war however, the other 24 million were displaced by natural disasters such as floods, storms, wildfires and severe winter conditions. Of those, 7.4 million were driven from their homes due to disasters in China. 5.9 million were displaced by disaster in the Philippines (this is a very large number of people considering the population is only 100 million), 2.4 million in India and 1.2 million in Indonesia.

The number of internally displaced persons is double the number of refugees in the world, but it is usually the latter that garner most of the world's attention. As Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council said, there is a need to focus as much on people displaced inside their countries as on refugees and to "put internal displacement back on the global agenda".