Displaced from Countries that Don’t Exist: IDPs, Refugees, and Frozen Conflicts

What happens to people displaced from countries that don’t exist? Those displaced from ISIS- or Donetsk People's Republic (DNR)-controlled territories have had to confront this very question. They are, as a technical matter, categorized as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) rather than refugees, due to international non-recognition of the states from which they have been displaced; and as such, these individuals have been particularly affected by the lack of consensus on how to deal with IDPs. The experiences of individuals displaced during now-frozen conflicts following the fall of communist regimes in the Balkans and Caucasus suggest that they are unlikely to enjoy many of the legal protections afforded to refugees. The combination of a weak international legal regime to govern IDPs and de jure states’ political disincentives to integrate them suggests that they will not enjoy such protections until either a legally binding IDP regime is developed or the frozen conflicts become resolved.

Got the picture?

On 5 August 2016, the UN News Centre published a picture captioned UN team in Jordan uses cranes to hoist aid to Syrian refugees at sealed border. The picture is taken from Jordanian territory. The low mud wall behind the trucks marks the Syrian border. At the time, Amnesty International reported that more than 75,000 Syrian refugees were living in the desert on the Syrian side. The text accompanying the picture reports that “life-saving food and other supplies from the United Nations” are being “hoisted by crane and monitored by drones across the closed frontier” in what is called “a unique operation.” The World Food Programme delivered food packages, the International Organization for Migration contributed bread, and the UN’s children fund UNICEF hygiene kits. This picture, as well as the perky accompanying press release, captures the outcome of international, and in particular of European policies vis-à-vis the Syrian refugee issue. In 2011, Syria had 23 million inhabitants. At present, some 11 million of them have been uprooted; 6.5 million of them are internally displaced (IDP’s, including the 75,000 people at the Jordanian border), and 4.9 million have sought refuge outside Syria.

How does someone who has been forcibly displaced make the decision to cross an international border?

Notwithstanding the al-Assad regime’s recent recapture of Aleppo, the crisis in Syria is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, and Europe is beginning to collapse under the strain of its inability to devise a tenable solution to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers. The perceived refugee crisis in the Western world is dominating the global conversation, and relatively little attention is being paid to the 40.8 million internally displaced. Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, by virtue of remaining in their country of origin, are largely considered to be just one component of any given state’s burden of impoverished, needy, or disenfranchised people. They are thus often excluded from international debate on the management of refugees and the appropriate responses to crises of displacement that reverberate on a transnational scale.