Six Ways to Better Address Internal Displacement

August 9, 2017

HKS graduate students are interviewed on their work with the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Libby Whitbeck, Robin Laumann, and Tess O’Brien received support from the Carr Center to complete their Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) on internal displacement, working with the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

What problem did you seek to address through your PAE?

Many people are aware that the number of refugees around the world is at an all-time high. However, fewer realize that only a third of the globe’s displaced population are refugees. In fact, the majority of forced migrants are displaced within their own countries.

We sought to analyze the US government’s current response to internal displacement – across its federal agencies and in coordination with international organizations such as the UN. Our PAE offered a series of recommendations to promote a more cohesive and effective response to internal displacement.


What are some of the limitations of the US government’s response to internal displacement?

The US government primarily addresses internal displacement through its funding to multilateral organizations including the UN, NGOs, and civil society. This funding is funneled through four different federal agencies to various UN agencies.

There is no federal interagency strategy for internally displaced people (IDPs). Coordination between these US federal agencies is ad hoc, resulting in duplication and overlapping mandates – particularly for USAID and the State Department.

There is also no designated lead UN agency to respond to internal displacement. IDPs do not have an institutional sponsor promoting their rights at the UN, nor do they enjoy the same legal protections as refugees. Responding to internal displacement is not prioritized as a result, and the effectiveness of relief efforts is also constrained.

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs is an under-resourced position with a restricted mandate. This limits the impact of the Special Rapporteur’s efforts.


What recommendations did you offer to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to address these challenges?

We identified three actions to address the US government’s organizational structure to engage with internal displacement:

  1. Congress should require the Humanitarian Policy Working Group (HPWG) to provide regular updates and briefings to relevant Congressional Committees. At present, HPWG is the only coordination mechanism between agencies involved in IDP-related programming.
  2. Congress should amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (MRA) to clarify the roles of the State Department and USAID in addressing the global challenge of forced displacement. IDPs are a fundamental component of this challenge.
  3. The State Department should support the African Union in operationalizing the Kampala Convention. It should advocate for other regional organizations to establish their own regional standards in guaranteeing the human rights of IDPs.

We offered three recommendations to improve US government coordination with international organizations to address internal displacement:

  1. The UN should define a lead agency to address internal displacement, supporting that agency with the necessary funding.
  2. The UN Secretary General should reestablish the role of Representative of the UN Secretary General on IDPs, with appropriate staff and resources.
  3. The UN should strengthen coordination between UN Agencies involved in responding to internal displacement, to ensure that communities in need do not fall between the gaps of distinct mandates.


Having presented your findings to the Committee, what are the next steps?

We conducted our research against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s first few months of office. The Congressional conversation regarding forcibly displaced persons dramatically shifted during this period.

The Democratic staff on the Committee are fighting to preserve programs and funding for IDPs and refugees; they are not in a political position to increase resources or reorganize diplomatic leadership. Nevertheless, we remain confident that our report is a good basis from which the US Congress can address the issue of internal displacement.

Today, there is political interest from both sides of the aisle to address internal displacement, albeit for different reasons. Liberals point to the need to promote American values of freedom, tolerance, and human rights. Conservatives cite national security arguments.

The initial months of the Trump presidency suggest that diplomacy and international development efforts will not be a priority. President Trump’s proposed budget would cut funding for diplomacy and development programs by 29 percent, eliminating the Emergency Refugee Migration Assistance account. The President did nonetheless express interest in pursuing durable solutions for displaced persons in his address to a Joint Session of Congress in February.


And finally, how did each of you become interested in this topic?

Tess: I spent a year volunteering with an organization that provides legal assistance to refugees in Cambodia. I lived with the same people we were assisting - asylum seekers from Myanmar, Pakistan, and Vietnam – who became close friends of mine. Since then I have worked for a number of NGOs, often on programs with a focus on forced migration, including in South Sudan and Kenya. When the opportunity arose to evaluate (and we hoped influence) the US response to the crisis with two good friends, I jumped.

Robin: My father and his family became refugees in the Cold War. As a result, I’ve been passionate about addressing challenges resulting from forced displacement from an early age. Last summer, I interned with the German development agency (GIZ) in southern Turkey, working on rapid-response mechanisms for the civilian population in Syria. Many of these people had been forcibly displaced during the Syrian civil war. Working on institutional changes to better address internal displacement globally promised a rewarding opportunity to reach people who face hardship on so many levels. 

Libby: While working as a foreign affairs staffer in the US Senate from 2009-2015, I came to see the rhetoric regarding refugees and IDPs as pretty backwards. Too often, the US political conversation centers on the threats that resettlement poses to national security, but rarely do we consider the security threats to our country posed by inaction. This crisis is not going away on its own -- the number of forcibly displaced persons is the highest in recorded history and is continuing to grow.