When does displacement end?

Is it too early even to be asking this question? Do we need to decide when the entitlements and benefits of IDP status should end?

How are decisions currently made and with what consequences? As we work to develop greater clarity on the criteria used to determine the end of displacement, what is the role of the IDP research community?

There is now a keen interest among IDP actors to address the issue of when, in any particular situation, the phenomenon of internal displacement can be considered to have ended. Recognising the need for a coherent response, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has asked Dr Francis Deng, the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, for advice and guidance on cessation of IDP status. Many of the papers presented at this conference have touched on this theme. The question of when internal displacement ends is an issue that strikes a chord with virtually all of the stated research themes addressed at this conference.

The Brookings-SAIS Project is currently exploring this issue in collaboration with Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. A publicly available discussion paper and legal commentary have been circulated for discussion. We believe that there are many compelling reasons why researchers, practitioners and policy makers need to reach consensus on how to decide that internal displacement has indeed ended:

  • Operational agencies, NGOs and governments require data on the number of internally displaced people in order to formulate programmes and policies addressing their needs.
  • We need to know when national - as well as international - responsibility, attention and resources should shift from a specific focus on the needs and vulnerabilities of IDPs to a more holistic community-based rehabilitation and development agenda.
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, IDPs themselves are entitled to know where they stand.
  • Arbitrary decisions that displacement has ‘ended’ mean that some displaced populations effectively disappear as a specific group of concern.


The fact that varying interpretations currently exist as to when displacement ends leads to dramatic variations in statistics which impede a coordinated approach. Currently, decisions on when internal displacement ends are made, if at all, on an ad hoc basis. The methodologies used and the conclusions reached differ among actors. To give just one example: the Global IDP Database reports that estimates of the number of IDPs in Guatemala range from zero to a quarter of a million.

Three lenses

We have been looking at this issue through three different lenses: the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which shape all our work, analogies with refugee law and practice and the realities of actual situations of ongoing displacement.

1. The Guiding Principles stipulate that “displacement shall last no longer than required by the circumstances” (Principle 6.3). Understanding what these circumstances are, and when displacement can and should be considered to end, is therefore vital for the application of the Principles themselves. The fact that the Principles do not contain a cessation clause was not an oversight on the part of the drafting team but a deliberate decision. It was recognised that the definition of ‘internally displaced person’ is not declaratory but is descriptive in nature, denoting the factual situation of being displaced within one’s country rather than conferring a legal status to be granted, much less revoked. This does not preclude states or other actors from introducing administrative measures, such as registration for the purposes of proving entitlement to special assistance targeting IDPs. However, from the standpoint of international law, such registration processes have no bearing on the descriptive reality of being internally displaced.

An end to internal displacement would therefore be contingent on a change in the factual situation that the term denotes. For those persons who remain in their country of origin, the Guiding Principles envisage three possible solutions to their situation of internal displacement: return to their home areas or place of habitual residence; integration in the localities where they go to once displaced; or resettlement in another part of the country. The Guiding Principles specify the responsibilities of national authorities to facilitate these three solutions and to ensure that:

  • return or resettlement occur voluntarily and in “safety and dignity”
  • those returning or resettling do not suffer discrimination as a result of having been displaced and are able to participate in public affairs and enjoy equal access to public services
  • IDPs recover or receive compensation for property and possessions destroyed or of which they were dispossessed as a result of their displacement


2. Refugee law contains cessation clauses - in Article 1C of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. Of the six circumstances mentioned under which an individual would no longer be eligible for refugee status and the international protection it affords, only one (paragraph 5, allowing for cessation if “the circumstances in connection with which [s/]he has been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist”)  could be applied to internally displaced persons by analogy.

Analogies with refugee law may therefore not be very helpful to the discussion of when internal displacement ends. However, the experience of cessation of refugee status does highlight dangers that:

  • application of the cessation clauses for refugees can lead to (and often has) an automatic and unwarranted assumption that internal displacement has ended as well – this was the case when UNHCR ended refugee status for all Mozambican refugees at the end of 1996
  • cessation of refugee status may actually lead to an increase in the number of IDPs – this was the result both in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement and more recently in Afghanistan as refugees were compelled to return home


Clearly, we need an integrated and comprehensive approach to the issue of when displacement ends that takes into account the effects of such determinations on both groups of forced migrants.


3. There are many experiences of internal displacement relevant to our discussion. They include:

  • Colombia’s decision to consider IDPs as having such status for only three months (but with a possible once-off extension if they register with the state – something which many are unable to do) highlights the risk that the duration of internal displacement is determined by the capacity or readiness of states to provide emergency humanitarian assistance rather than by need. [very long sentence! Could you put the bit in parentheses in an endnote?]
  • Croatian regulations allowing for revocation of IDP status and benefits for those who refuse to complete household chores in state-run centres violate Guiding Principle 3.


Three sets of criteria

One way to look at the issue would be to focus on the causes of internal displacement and consider whether the existence of ‘changed circumstances’ from those that had compelled flight in the first place might signal an end to displacement. Experience in post-conflict Bosnia and Afghanistan suggests that even when the immediate causal factors of displacement cease to exist a durable solution to the plight of displaced persons does not necessarily follow. Thus Georgian and Azerbaijani IDPs are victims of political expedience by which governments keep IDPs in a state of limbo, unable to go home in the absence of a peace settlement but denied equal rights as citizens. Basing decisions on simply cause-based criteria can end displacement prematurely or, as the original causes persist, perpetuate a state of displacement indefinitely and to the detriment of the displaced.


A solutions-based criteria approach focusing on when IDPs return home or resettle can lead to controversy. Examples include the US Committee for Refugees deeming displacement to have ended in Guatemala in 1998 and the decision by the Sierra Leonean government and international agencies that there were no longer any IDPs in mid 2002. In both cases critics have pointed to lack of safety in areas of return, inadequate reintegration assistance, lack of property compensation and inability of ‘ex’ IDPs to vote, access public services or obtain identification documents. We must question the argument that a mere change of address is an adequate basis on which to deem displacement to have ended.

An approach based on needs-based criteria determines if needs and vulnerabilities specific to IDP populations no longer exist. The displaced need not necessarily have permanently resettled or returned and may still be in need but they would no longer have specific needs different from the rest of the population which are attributable to their displacement. The Guiding Principles are useful in pointing to needs that would be relevant in this regard.

The way forward

We are continuing work on refining and further elaborating criteria to be presented to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee which brings together UN and other international humanitarian, development and human rights actors. We will also convene a meeting with donors and international financial institutions, together with selected countries affected by internal displacement, to get their perspective on the issue and refine the criteria as necessary. In discussing with donors the issue of when displacement ends we must safeguard against approaches that are simply resource-driven and seeking expedient exit strategies.

Our work in developing criteria for when displacement ends and reporting back to the UN with guidance will be ongoing even when the criteria are finalised. The challenge will then be to apply the criteria as a benchmark as well as a basis for advocacy in support of truly durable solutions for IDPs. Supporting effective application of the criteria will open up whole new areas of empirical research for a broad range of specialists from such disciplines new to IDP affairs as law, political science, anthropology, sociology, demography, architecture and statistics.

I have identified at least eight questions relevant to the subject of when internal displacement ends. How can researchers and practitioners (including those in displacement-affected nations) work together to:

  1. bolster the criteria now being developed with monitoring mechanisms?
  2. additionally include criteria for situations of displacement due to natural disasters and development?
  3. more systematically analyse national legislation around the issue of when displacement ends?
  4. collect and disseminate more information on what actually happens to people once they return or resettle?
  5. chronicle and disseminate best practices for supporting the durability of return or resettlement as well as effective reintegration?
  6. better understand and resolve the root causes of displacement?
  7. consider the influence of urbanisation, whether as a mixed cause (together with conflict, for instance) for the original displacement or as a reason why IDPs decide not to return?
  8. develop a more nuanced notion of ‘home’ which embraces perspectives of the displaced and recognises that ‘home’ may be more a metaphysical concept than a geographical one?


Erin Mooney is the Deputy Director of the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement and of the Center for Displacement Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. Email: emooney3@jhu.edu.


Documents prepared by the Project in connection with its research project on the end of IDP status are online at www.brook.edu/fp/projects/idp/idp.htm.

Forced Migration Review 17, co-edited by the Project, focuses on questions around the end of internal displacement.


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