In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Internal Displacement

  • Introduction
  • Early Writing and General Overviews
  • Institutional and Organizational Resources
  • Periodicals
  • Bibliographies
  • Teaching and Training Materials
  • Other Tools
  • Regional Normative Frameworks
  • National Normative Frameworks

International Relations Internal Displacement
Sanjula Weerasinghe, Elizabeth Ferris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0110


While people have always fled their communities because of war, violence, persecution, and disasters, until the early 1990s international attention largely focused on those who had crossed an international border as refugees rather than those who remained within the borders of their country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pressed the UN Commission on Human Rights to recognize the needs of this particular group of people, and in 1992 the Commission named a Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (RSG) and the following year asked him to review international norms relevant to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and to identify gaps. The RSG presented a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Guiding Principles) in 1998 that were affirmed by the World Summit of 2005. The Guiding Principles have served as the basis for the development of standards at the regional level, notably the African Union, and for national governments seeking to ensure that the rights of those displaced within their borders were respected and upheld. National governments bear the primary responsibility for protecting and assisting IDPs. From the beginning, international efforts to assist IDPs have thus been based on the principle of national sovereignty and the recognition of state responsibility, an understanding reflected in the Guiding Principles. Much of the early work on internal displacement sought to raise awareness of the scope of internal displacement and the needs of IDPs, and focused on the applicability of the normative framework. As international awareness grew about the needs of IDPs, humanitarian actors carried out further conceptual and operational work. Who in the international community would be “responsible” for IDPs? The description of IDPs in the Guiding Principles includes those displaced not only by conflict, generalized violence, and massive violations of human rights, but also those displaced by human and man-made disasters. The initial focus of scholars and practitioners alike was on those displaced by conflict. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, considerable effort was devoted to understanding the particular needs of those displaced by disasters and later by climate change. While a separate stream of research, spearheaded by the World Bank, had focused since the 1980s on people resettled because of development projects, such as dams, it was not until the early 2000s that links began to be drawn between those displaced by development projects and those displaced by conflict. This article seeks to provide an overview of the literature on IDPs, with a focus on normative and institutional frameworks, tensions and debates, overarching studies, and resource materials. Due to limitations of space, this review does not include the many individual case studies on IDPs, nor many related thematic issues.

Early Writing and General Overviews

In the early 1990s, a number of authors began to write about the phenomenon of internal displacement, raising awareness of its scale and presenting the case for international efforts to respond to the needs and uphold the rights of this particular group of people. Beginning with Deng 1993, later presented in Cohen and Deng 1998a, this theme was picked up by major institutional players, including the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global IDP Project (later to become the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre; see Global IDP Project 2002) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA; see No Refuge: The Challenge of Internal Displacement). Korn 1999 summarizes early understandings of these developments for a general audience, while both Cohen and Deng 1998b and Vincent and Sorensen 2001 provide collections of case studies of particular national displacement situations. Phuong 2004 provides an overview of the emerging legal norms related to internal displacement. Additional sources related to these thematic issues are also found in the section on Development of the Guiding Principles.

  • Cohen, Roberta, and Francis M. Deng. Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998a.

    A 414-page detailed and extensive policy-orientated analysis of the causes and consequences of internal displacement and pertinent political, normative, and institutional architecture; chapters describe IDPs and the evolution of international concern; examine the legal framework, institutional arrangements, role of NGOs, and regional responses; and present recommendations for addressing the problem.

  • Cohen, Roberta, and Francis M. Deng, eds. The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998b.

    The 512-page companion to Masses in Flight, this volume contains case studies of ten countries affected by internal displacement: Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, and Sudan in Africa; the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus in Europe; Tajikistan and Sri Lanka in Asia; and Colombia and Peru in the Americas. Findings from the case studies are integrated into Masses in Flight.

  • Deng, Francis M. Protecting the Dispossessed: The Challenge for the International Community. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1993.

    Based on Deng’s first report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, this is a first-person narrative embodying an early general overview of the causes and consequences of internal displacement, legal standards for protection and assistance, enforcement mechanisms, prevailing conditions in a number of affected countries, and the urgent need for an international response.

  • Global IDP Project. Internally Displaced People: A Global Survey. 2d ed. London: Earthscan, 2002.

    This second edition, produced by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global IDP Project, is a historical reference tool comprising an overview of global internal displacement, trends, and problem areas. The first part discusses specific issues related to internal displacement, including challenges associated with bridging the information gap. The second part presents regional profiles, further subdivided into country profiles.

  • Korn, David A. Exodus within Borders: An Introduction to the Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1999.

    A relatively concise, and less technical, summary of the essential findings of Masses in Flight, this volume is an accessible introductory text for a broad readership. The Guiding Principles are reproduced in an annex, and photographs illustrate the plight of IDPs.

  • Phuong, Catherine. The International Protection of Internally Displaced Persons. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    By reference to public international law, international relations, peace and security, and human rights, this wide-ranging and accessible reference monograph covers conceptual differences between refugees and IDPs, legal protection (including through nonbinding norms), the institutional framework for protection, real-world implementation, and sovereignty vs. responsibility, offering a unique self-contained overview of the complex and entwined dimensions of internal displacement.

  • United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. No Refuge: The Challenge of Internal Displacement. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 2003.

    Commissioned by the Internal Displacement Unit, this is the first UN publication on internal displacement. It presents a stock taking of the international community’s, and in particular the UN’s, response to the crisis of internal displacement, lessons learned, and outstanding challenges.

  • Vincent, Marc, and Birgitte Refslund Sorensen, eds. Caught between Borders: Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto, 2001.

    Using case studies from different countries (including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Burma, Colombia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Sudan, and Uganda), settings, and phases of displacement, this edited volume, published in association with the Norwegian Refugee Council, is the first to present and analyze the effectiveness of informal coping mechanisms adopted and developed by persons displaced internally by violence, conflict, and human rights violations.

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