Forced displacement

Last updated
Displaced persons in 2017 [1]
Total population
65.6 million [2]
Regions with significant populations
Refugees17.187 million
IDPs36.627 million
Asylum seekers2.826 million
People in refugee-like situation803,134

Forced displacement (also forced migration) is the involuntary or coerced movement of a person or people away from their home or home region. This movement may have been caused by a variety of factors including natural disasters, violence, ethnic cleansing, individual or group persecution, droughts, civil wars, deportation and population transfer.[ citation needed ] The UNHCR defines 'forced displacement' more narrowly as: displaced "as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations". [3]


A forcibly displaced person may also be referred to as a "forced migrant", a "displaced person" (DP), or, if displaced within the home country, an "internally displaced person" (IDP). While some displaced persons may be considered as refugees, the latter term specifically refers to such displaced persons who are receiving legally-defined protection and are recognized as such by their country of residence and/or international organizations.

Syrian and Iraqi migrants arriving in Lesbos, Greece in 2015 seeking refuge. 20151030 Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece 2.jpg
Syrian and Iraqi migrants arriving in Lesbos, Greece in 2015 seeking refuge.

Forced displacement has gained attention in international discussions and policy making since the European migrant crisis. This has since resulted in a greater consideration of the impacts of forced migration on affected regions outside Europe. Various international, regional, and local organizations are developing and implementing approaches to both prevent and mitigate the impact of forced migration in the previous home regions as well as the receiving or destination regions. [4] [5] [6] Additionally, some collaboration efforts are made to gather evidence in order to seek prosecution of those involved in causing events of man-made forced migration. [7] Approximately over 60 million people may be considered forcibly displaced since the onset of the 21st century, with the majority coming from the Global South. [8] [ citation needed ]

General deportation currents of the dekulakization 1930-1931 Karte Entkulakisierung.png
General deportation currents of the dekulakization 1930–1931


Governments, NGOs, other international organizations and social scientist have defined forced displacement in a variety of ways. They have generally agreed that it is the forced removal or relocation of a person from their environment and associated connections. It can involve different types of movements, such as flight (from fleeing), evacuation, and population transfer.

Distinctions between the different concepts

"Refugee studies" is the academic discipline or field of study covering the research of refugees and their experience seeking refuge, including the causes of their displacement and ability to find refuge. [12] Several categories of individuals are included in this field, labeled as follows: 'Refugee’; ‘expellee’; ‘exile’; ‘displaced person’; ‘internally displaced person (IDP)’; ‘economic migrant’; ‘humanitarian refugee’; ‘stateless person’; ‘tsunami refugee’; ‘development refugee’; ‘environmental refugee’; ‘government assisted refugee (GAR)’ etc. [12]

History of the term displaced person

The term displaced person (DP) was first widely used during World War II, following the subsequent refugee outflows from Eastern Europe. [14] In this context, DP specifically referred to an individual removed from their native country as a refugee, prisoner or a slave laborer. Most war victims, political refugees, and DPs of the immediate post-Second World War period were Ukrainians, Poles, other Slavs, and citizens of the Baltic states (Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians) who refused to return to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. A.J. Jaffe claimed that the term was originally coined by Eugene M. Kulischer. [15] The meaning has significantly broadened in the past half-century.

Causes and examples

Bogumil Terminski distinguishes two general categories of displacement:

Natural causes

Forced displacement may directly result from natural disasters and indirectly from the subsequent impact on infrastructure, food and water access, and local/regional economies. Displacement may be temporary or permanent, depending on the scope of the disaster and the area's recovery capabilities. Climate change is increasing the frequency of major natural disasters, possibly placing a greater number of populations in situations of forced displacement. [17] [18] Also crop failures due to blight and/or pests fall within this category by affecting people's access to food. Additionally, the term environmental refugee represents people who are forced to leave their traditional habitat because of environmental factors which negatively impact their livelihood, or even environmental disruption i.e. biological, physical or chemical change in ecosystem. [19] Migration can also occur as a result of slow-onset climate change, such as desertification or sea-level rise, of deforestation or land degradation.

Examples of forced displacement caused by natural disasters

Damage to residence in Nias, Indonesia from the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Damage in Nias from the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Indonesia 2005. Photo- AusAID (10691224953).jpg
Damage to residence in Nias, Indonesia from the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
  • 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: Resulting from a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of North Sumatra, the Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed over 227,898 lives, heavily damaging coastlines throughout the Indian Ocean. [20] As a result, over 1.7 million people were displaced, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India. [21]
  • 2005 Hurricane Katrina: Striking New Orleans, Louisiana in late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina inflicted approximately US$125 billion in damages, standing as one of the costliest storms in United States history. [22] As a result of the damage inflicted by Katrina, over one million people were internally displaced. One month after the disaster, over 600,000 remained displaced. Immediately following the disaster, New Orleans lost approximately half of its population, with many residents displaced to cities such as Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta. According to numerous studies, displacement disproportionally impacted Louisiana's poorer populations, specifically African Americans. [23] [24]
  • 2011 East African Drought: Failed rains in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia led to high livestock and crop losses, driving majority pastoralist populations to surrounding areas in search of accessible food and water. [25] In addition to seeking food and water, local populations' migration was motivated by an inability to maintain traditional lifestyles. [17] According to researchers, although partly influenced by local armed conflict, the East African Drought stands as an example of climate change impacts.
  • Great Famine of Ireland: Between 1845 and 1849, a potato blight struck Ireland, whose poor population mostly depended on potato harvests. Over one million perished from subsequent famine and disease, and another million fled the country, reducing the overall Irish population by almost one quarter. [26]

Man-made causes

Man-made displacement describes forced displacement caused by political entities, criminal organizations, conflicts, man-made environmental disasters, development, etc. Although impacts of natural disasters and blights/pests may be exacerbated by human mismanagement, man-made causes refer specifically to those initiated by humans. According to UNESCO, armed conflict stands as the most common cause behind forced displacement, reinforced by regional studies citing political and armed conflict as the largest attributing factors to migrant outflows from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. [10] [27] [28] [29]

Examples of forced displacement caused by criminal activity

  • Displacement in Mexico due to cartel violence: Throughout Mexico, drug cartel, paramilitary, and self-defense group violence drives internal and external displacement. [30] [29] According to a comprehensive, mixed methodology study by Salazar and Álvarez Lobato, families fled their homes as a means of survival, hoping to escape homicide, extortion, and potential kidnapping. Using a collection of available data and existing studies, the total number of displaced persons between 2006 and 2012 was approximately 740 million. [31]
  • Displacement in Central America due to cartel/gang violence: A major factor behind US immigrant crises in the early 21st century (such as the 2014 immigrant crisis), rampant gang violence in the Northern Triangle, combined with corruption and low economic opportunities, has forced many to flee their country in pursuit of stability and greater opportunity. Homicide rates in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras reached some of the highest in the world, with El Salvador peaking at 103 homicides per 100,000 people. [32] Contributing factors include extortion, territorial disputes, and forced gang recruitment, resulting in some estimates of approximately 500,000 people displaced annually. [32] [33] [34]
  • Displacement in Colombia due to conflict and drug-related violence: According to researchers Mojica and Eugenia, Medellín, Colombia around 2013 exemplified crime and violence-induced forced displacement, standing as one of the most popular destinations for IDPs while also producing IDPs of its own. Rural citizens fled from organized criminal violence, with the majority pointing to direct threats as the main driving force, settling in Medellín in pursuit of safety and greater opportunity. Within Medellín, various armed groups battled for territorial control, forcing perceived opponents from their homes and pressuring residents to abandon their livelihoods, among other methods. All in all, criminal violence forced Colombians to abandon their possessions, way of life, and social ties in pursuit of safety. [35]

Examples of forced displacement caused by political conflict

  • Vietnam War: Throughout the Vietnam War and in the years proceeding it, many populations were forced out of Vietnam and the surrounding countries as a result of armed conflict and/or persecution by their governments, such as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This event is referred to as the Indochina Refugee Crisis, with millions displaced across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. [36] [37]
  • Salvadoran Civil War: Throughout and after the 12-year conflict between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN, Salvadorans faced forced displacement as a result of combat, persecution, and deteriorating quality of life/access to socioeconomic opportunities. Overall, one in four Salvadorans were internally and externally displaced (over one million people). [38] [39]

Examples of forced displacement caused by man-made environmental disasters

  • 2019 Amazon Rainforest Wildfires: Although man-made fires are a normal part of Amazonian agriculture, the 2019 dry season saw an internationally noted increase in their rate of occurrence. The rapidly spreading fires, combined with efforts from agricultural and logging companies, has forced Brazil's indigenous populations off their native lands. [40] [41]
  • Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: A nuclear meltdown on April 26, 1986 near Pripyat, Ukraine contaminated the city and surrounding areas with harmful levels of radiation, forcing the displacement of over 100,000 people. [42]

Other man-made displacement

  • Human trafficking/smuggling: Migrants displaced through deception or coercion with purpose of their exploitation fall under this category. Due to its clandestine nature, the data on such type of forced migration are limited. A disparity also exists between the data for male trafficking (such as for labor in agriculture, construction etc.) and female trafficking (such as for sex work or domestic service), with more data available for males. The International Labour Organization considers trafficking an offense against labor protection, denying companies from leveraging migrants as a labor resource. ILO's Multilateral Framework includes principle no. 11, recommending that "Governments should formulate and implement, in consultation with the social partners, measures to prevent abusive practices, migrant smuggling and people trafficking; they should also work towards preventing irregular labor migration."
    Jewish people, forcibly displaced by the Nazi regime during Germany's WWII occupation of Poland, loaded onto trains for transport to concentration camps. Umschlagplatz in Warsaw August 1942.jpg
    Jewish people, forcibly displaced by the Nazi regime during Germany's WWII occupation of Poland, loaded onto trains for transport to concentration camps.
  • Slavery: Historically, slavery has led to the displacement of individuals for forced labor, with the Middle Passage of the 15th through 19th century Atlantic slave trade standing as a notable example. Of the 20 million Africans captured for the trade, half died in their forced march to the African coast, and another ten to twenty percent died on slave ships carrying them from Africa to the Americas. [43]
  • Ethnic cleansing: The systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous. Examples include the Catholic removal of European Protestants (e.g. Salzburg Protestants) during the 16th through 19th centuries during the counter-Reformation and the cleansing of Jewish people and other ethnic minorities during the Holocaust and the deportation of indigenous peoples of the North America from their native lands.

Conditions faced by displaced persons

Children of Undocumented Immigrants from Latin America to the United States detained in the Ursula Detention Center, McAllen, Texas. Ursula (detention center) 180617-H-BP911-641 (41979746295).jpg
Children of Undocumented Immigrants from Latin America to the United States detained in the Ursula Detention Center, McAllen, Texas.

Displaced persons face adverse conditions when taking the decision to leave, traveling to a destination, and sometimes upon reaching their destination. [44] [45] [46] Displaced persons are often forced to place their lives at risk, travel in inhumane conditions, and may be exposed to exploitation and abuse. These risk factors may increase through the involvement of smugglers and human traffickers, who may exploit them for illegal activities such as drug/weapons trafficking, forced labor, or sex work. The states where migrants seek protection may consider them a threat to national security. [47] Displaced persons may also seek the assistance of human smugglers (such as coyotes in Latin America) throughout their journey. [48] [49] Given the illegal nature of smuggling, smugglers may take use dangerous methods to reach their destination without capture, exposing displaced persons to harm and sometimes resulting in deaths. [50] Examples include abandonment, exposure to exploitation, dangerous transportation conditions, and death from exposure to harsh environments. [51] [52] [53] [54]

In most instances of forced migration across borders, migrants do not possess the required documentation for legal travel. The states where migrants seek protection may consider them a threat to national security. [55] As a result, displaced persons may face detainment and criminal punishment, as well as physical and psychological trauma. Various studies focusing on migrant health have specifically linked migration to increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, and other psychological troubles. [56] [57] For example, the United States has faced criticism for its recent policies regarding migrant detention, specifically the detention of children. Critics point to poor detention conditions, unstable contact with parents, and high potential for long-term trauma as reasons for seeking policy changes. [58] [59] Displaced persons risk greater poverty than before displacement, financial vulnerability, and potential social disintegration, in addition to other risks related to human rights, culture, and quality of life. [60] Forced displacement has varying impacts, dependent on the means through which one was forcibly displaced, their geographic location, their protected status, and their ability to personally recover. Under the most common form of displacement, armed conflict, individuals often lose possession of their assets upon fleeing and possible upon arrival to a new country, where they can also face cultural, social, and economic discontinuity. [10] [61]

Responses to forced displacement

International response

Responses to situations of forced displacement vary across regional and international levels, with each type of forced displacement demonstrating unique characteristics and the need for a considerate approach. At the international level, international organizations (e.g. the UNHCR), NGOs (Doctors without Borders), and country governments (USAID) may work towards directly or indirectly ameliorating these situations. [62] Means may include establishing internationally recognized protections, providing clinics to migrant camps, and supplying resources to populations. [33] [63] According to researchers such as Francis Deng, as well as international organizations such as the UN, an increase in IDPs compounds the difficulty of international responses, posing issues of incomplete information and questions regarding state sovereignty. [64] [62] [65] State sovereignty especially becomes of concern when discussing protections for IDPs, who are within the borders of a sovereign state, placing reluctance in the international community's ability to respond. [66] Multiple landmark conventions aim at providing rights and protections to the different categories of forcibly displaced persons, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol, the Kampala Convention, and the 1998 Guiding Principles. [67] [60] Despite internationally cooperation, these frameworks rely on the international system, which states may disregard. finds that nations "very selectively" respond to instances of forced migration and internally displaced persons. [66]

World organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as individual countries, sometimes directly respond to the challenges faced by displaced people, providing humanitarian assistance or forcibly intervening in the country of conflict. Disputes related to these organizations' neutrality and limited resources has affected the capabilities of international humanitarian action to mitigate mass displacement mass displacement's causes. [68] These broad forms of assistance sometimes do not fully address the multidimensional needs of displaced persons. Regardless, calls for multilateral responses echo across organizations in the face of falling international cooperation. These organizations propose more comprehensive approaches, calling for improved conflict resolution and capacity-building in order to reduce instances of forced displacement. [69] [70]

Local response

Responses may occur at more local levels, such as the individual's place of relocation. Lived in experiences of displaced persons will vary according to the state and local policies of their country of relocation. Policies reflecting national exclusion of displaced persons may be undone by inclusive urban policies. Sanctuary cities are an example of spaces that regulate their cooperation or participation with immigration law enforcement. [71] The practice of urban membership upon residence allows displaced persons to have access to city services and benefits, regardless of their legal status. [72] Sanctuary cities have been able to provide migrants with greater mobility and participation in activities limiting the collection of personal information, issuing identification cards to all residents, and providing access to crucial services such as health care. [71] Access to these services can ease the hardships of displaced people by allowing them to healthily adjust to life after displacement.

Criminal prosecution

Forced displacement has been the subject of several trials in local and international courts. For an offense to classify as a war crime, the victim must be a "protected person" under international humanitarian law. Originally referring only categories of individuals explicitly protected under one of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, "protected person" now may define a civilian or police force not participating directly in a conflict. [73]

In Article 49, the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted on 12 August 1949, specifically forbade forced displacement

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected people from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive. [74]

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines forced displacement as a crime within the jurisdiction of the court:

"Deportation or forcible transfer of population" means forced displacement of the people concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law. [75]

See also

Related Research Articles

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a UN agency mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with over 17,300 staff working in 135 countries.

A refugee, generally speaking, is a displaced person who has been forced to cross national boundaries and who cannot return home safely. Such a person may be called an asylum seeker until granted refugee status by the contracting state or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) if they formally make a claim for asylum. The lead international agency coordinating refugee protection is the United Nations Office of the UNHCR. The United Nations has a second office for refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is solely responsible for supporting the large majority of Palestinian refugees.

Human migration Movement of people for resettlement

Human migration involves the movement of people from one place to another with intentions of settling, permanently or temporarily, at a new location. The movement often occurs over long distances and from one country to another, but internal migration is also possible; indeed, this is the dominant form of human migration globally. People may migrate as individuals, in family units or in large groups. There are four major forms of migration: invasion, conquest, colonization and emigration/immigration.

An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their home country because of war or other factors harming them or their family, enters another country, and applies for asylum, that is, international protection, in this other country. An asylum seeker is an immigrant who has been affected by forced displacement and may become considered a refugee. The terms asylum seeker and refugee are often confused.

Internally displaced person

An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country's borders. They are often referred to as refugees, although they do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee.

Refugee camp Temporary settlement for refugees

A refugee camp is a temporary settlement built to receive refugees and people in refugee-like situations. Refugee camps usually accommodate displaced persons who have fled their home country, but camps are also made for internally displaced people. Usually, refugees seek asylum after they have escaped war in their home countries, but some camps also house environmental and economic migrants. Camps with over a hundred thousand people are common, but as of 2012, the average-sized camp housed around 11,400. They are usually built and run by a government, the United Nations, international organizations, or non-governmental organization. Unofficial refugee camps, such as Idomeni in Greece or the Calais jungle in France, are where refugees are largely left without support of governments or international organizations.

Development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR) occurs when people are forced to leave their homes and/or land as a result of development. This subset of forced migration has been historically associated with the construction of dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation but is also the result of various development projects such as mining, agriculture, the creation of military installations, airports, industrial plants, weapon testing grounds, railways, road developments, urbanization, conservation projects, and forestry.

Afghanistan refugees are nationals of Afghanistan who left their country as a result of major wars or persecution. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marks the first wave of internal displacement and refugee flow from Afghanistan to neighboring Pakistan and Iran that began providing shelter to Afghan refugees. When the Soviet war ended in 1989, these refugees started to return to their homeland. In April 1992, a major civil war began after the mujahideen took over control of Kabul and the other major cities. Afghans again fled to neighboring countries, including Tajikistan and India, and to regions such as Europe.

Environmental migrant People forced to leave their home region due to changes to their local environment

Environmental migrants are people who are forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment. These are changes which compromise their well-being or secure livelihood. Such changes are held to include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns. Climate refugees may choose to flee to or migrate to another country, or they may migrate internally within their own country.[2]

Refugees of Iraq

Refugees of Iraq are Iraqi nationals who have fled Iraq due to war or persecution. Throughout the past 30 years, there have been a growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and settling throughout the world, peaking recently with the latest Iraq War. Precipitated by a series of conflicts including the Kurdish rebellions during the Iran–Iraq War, Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait (1990) and the Gulf War (1991), the subsequent sanctions against Iraq, and culminating in the violence during and after the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, millions have been forced by insecurity to flee their homes in Iraq. Unlike most refugees, Iraqi refugees have established themselves in urban areas in other countries rather than in refugee camps. In April 2007, there was an estimate of over four million Iraqi refugees around the world, including 1.9 million in Iraq, 2 million in neighboring Middle East countries, and around 200,000 in countries outside the Middle East. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has led the humanitarian efforts for Iraqi refugees. The Iraqi displacement of several million is the largest in the Middle East, and is much larger than the number of Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel.

Norwegian Refugee Council

The Norwegian Refugee Council is a humanitarian, non-governmental organisation that protects the rights of people affected by displacement. This includes refugees and internally displaced persons who are forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict, human rights violations and acute violence, as well as climate change and natural disasters.

Scott Leckie is an international human rights and global housing advocate in the field of economic, social and cultural rights. He established several human rights organisations and remedial institutions.

Azerbaijani SSR was one of the first republic of Soviet Union that faced the problem of refugees and internally displaced persons. The refugees are ethnic Azerbaijanis from Armenia and the internally displaced persons are ethnic Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven adjacent rayons which are controlled by the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The number of people who are currently displaced inside Iraq is estimated to be 3 million, almost one out of every ten Iraqis. This figure is cumulative and represents both those displaced before and after the 2003 US-led invasion. Displacement in Iraq is "chronic and complex:" since the 1960s Iraq has produced the largest population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees of any state in the Middle East.

Kampala Convention

The Kampala Convention is a treaty of the African Union (AU) that addresses internal displacement caused by armed conflict, natural disasters and large-scale development projects in Africa.

Sudanese refugees are persons originating from the country of Sudan, but seeking refuge outside the borders of their native country. In recent history, Sudan has been the stage for prolonged conflicts and civil wars, as well as environmental changes, namely desertification. These forces have resulted not only in violence and famine, but also the forced migration of large numbers of the Sudanese population, both inside and outside the country's borders. Given the expansive geographic territory of Sudan, and the regional and ethnic tensions and conflicts, much of the forced migration in Sudan has been internal. Yet, these populations are not immune to similar issues that typically accompany refugeedom, including economic hardship and providing themselves and their families with sustenance and basic needs. With the creation of a South Sudanese state, questions surrounding southern Sudanese IDPs may become questions of South Sudanese refugees.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mission in Ukraine is an official representative office of the International Organization for Migration in the country and is located in its capital city Kyiv.

Refugee crisis can refer to difficulties and dangerous situations in the reception of large groups of forcibly displaced persons. These could be either internally displaced, refugees, asylum seekers or any other huge groups of migrants.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) is the world's authoritative source  of data and analysis on internal displacement. Since its establishment in 1998 as part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, IDMC has offered a rigorous, independent and trusted service to the international community. The work of IDMC informs policy and operational decisions that improve the lives of the millions of people living in internal displacement, or at risk of becoming displaced in the future.

Education for refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons is the process of teaching and giving the knowledge and skills for refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons to fully participate in society. Access to education is a fundamental human right, as stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Education is the primary way by which displaced and marginalized migrants can lift themselves out of poverty and participate in their societies. Providing the opportunity to learn and flourish through learning can empower refugee children and adults to lead fulfilling lives, and is the means for the full realization of other human rights. Education for refugees can provide hope and long-term prospects for stability and sustainable peace for individuals, communities, countries and global society.


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Further reading