Ignored and invisible – Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the face of COVID-19 pandemic

Source(s): International Network for Government Science Advice


Overview of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

Imagine losing everything in a disaster or conflict – your home, your valuable possessions, even a person you hold dear. Imagine watching everything you have worked hard towards a comfortable life crumble to the ground. Imagine being forced to move out of your home to another place, with barely anything to your name, trying to cope from the shock. Imagine not knowing what to do, where to go, and who to lean on. This is what an internally displaced person (IDPs) inevitably experiences.

Internal displacement is perhaps one of the most adversely impactful human mobility issues, both to the affected people and the city. Unfortunately, it remains underrepresented in all forms of narrative. We do not know what exactly is happening as we lack the knowledge-building examining this vulnerable group. We also fail to effectively help and support them as most national and local policies do not reflect international guidelines on internal displacement. They remain ignored, invisible, and excluded.

It is a cause of concern as the number of internally displaced annually is astounding. In 2017, 30.6 million people were forced out of their homes due to conflict and disasters. This slightly fell to 27.8 million in 2018 according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre with most of the top ten affected countries from developing countries. There are various calls, various guidelines, a handful of conventions trying to address this issue. Yet, there are no lasting and durable solutions for IDPs, and they continue to be extremely vulnerable and are constantly exposed to various risks especially within the urban fabric.

In a pandemic that is challenging urban systems and infrastructure, what happens to the internally displaced?

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19 Pandemic) emerged in Wuhan, China and was announced as global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11, 2020. The impacts encompass globally with and as of 5 May 2020, there are 3,646,104 cases, with 252,407 Deaths, and 1,197,708 recovery (Worldometer, 2020). As the world is literally on a standstill due to COVID-19, vulnerable groups like urban IDPs are more weakened and more prone to experiencing injustice and inequalities. They often have limited or even non-existent access to basic services excluding them from most forms of aid and assistance. The internally displaced are unfortunately being left behind. There are five key points on the potential impacts of pandemic on IDPs as countries and local governments continue to ignore their plight.

Unlike a regular local of a host community, IDPs are generally more vulnerable to contracting the disease in a pandemic. This boils down to where an IDP family finds refuge in a host city or community. As they step into the host city, they usually have no access to safe housing which is worsened by the lack of proper support and relevant information on what to do. These families inevitably will find shelter in informal settlements. Informal settlements have been studied on their negative impacts to the inhabitants and is often cited as a cause of urban decay. These tightly packed and dense communities lack the necessary support systems to promote a secure and healthy life. With social distancing and quarantine as the common strategies in slowing the spread of the virus, it is virtually impossible in tight, cramped, and usually unsanitary conditions of most slums and informal settlements. Outside of informal settlements, some families find refuge in danger zones. In an interview with an IDP family displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, they had to craft a shanty on a sidewalk using found materials after they arrived in the host city. This is not a safe space during a pandemic.

Internally displaced persons with their limited understanding, may encounter systemic and structural obstacles in obtaining proper social and health care in case of an infection. If there is a full-blown infection in a city, IDPs may not have access to proper information especially if the local government fails to effectively communicate and does not utilize a wide range of media platforms. They might not even be aware that a virus is on the loose. The economic divide between those who can afford effective health care and those who cannot, like IDP families, should also be considered. Most of IDPs may not have the financial capacity to visit hospitals, relying heavily on free health care. Even if they can visit government health centers, chances are, they might compete with other citizens and vulnerable groups as most hospitals have a limited capacity and resources. It has already been widely reported how COVID-19 has put extreme pressures on health systems globally. Most of these IDPs also deal with trauma and other psychosocial issues from the previous crises. This will further threaten their mental health as they might not be given the proper care during a pandemic.

In connection to the previous point, internally displaced persons may have obstacles in obtaining relief and aid during a lockdown due to citizenship issues. There are cases when an IDP family lost their identity documents and are not registered in the host community. Language barriers, cultural divide, indigenous or ethnic discrimination, racism, and other forms of exclusion may also come into play. Citizenship rights often equals access to services and support systems of a government. Without this “right”, IDPs may find it difficult to receive any financial assistance, food pack, and any relief aid. Unless a free-for-all handout is employed, like a handful of cities in the Philippines, an IDP family’s welfare is underserved.

With possible long-term effects, internally displaced families are extremely vulnerable to livelihood loss and financial insecurity during a lockdown or quarantine. Talking to a handful of internally displaced families, they mentioned heavily relying on informal economies or becoming small-scale entrepreneurs. They sell food in offices, have a small sari-sari store, or take odd jobs here and there just to earn a living. A lockdown basically cuts off these sources of income that obviously will result to financial decline, pushing them deeper into poverty. News outlets and social media platforms in the Philippines have been reporting numerous cases of people begging on the streets for food and actively violating lockdown measures as they no longer can afford food. In Thailand, various suicide cases have been reported because of the economic impacts of the lockdown. This financial insecurity, coupled with weak social support systems and infrastructures, may also lead to food insecurity, mental health decline, and health issues, that ultimately threatens their lives.

All the compounding issues, challenges, and decline of quality of life leads to our final point. The reverberating negative effects of a pandemic may result to a secondary displacement or forced migration. Falling into extreme poverty, hunger and food insecurity, losing a job or source of income, a death in the family due to the virus, and other drivers can force IDP families to move again. We have not even considered into the equation climate change impacts, additional stressors, extreme weather events, new disasters, and other forms of unrest and violence. The moment IDPs are forced out, any progress and development they have barely scraped through will be in vain.

The pandemic reevaluates current understanding and definitions of internal displacement, or human mobility per se. Is an epidemic or a pandemic a new driver to displacement? Or has it been an undermined variable in internal displacement? Beyond immediate responses to the growing social, financial, and physical insecurity everywhere, how do we move forward in the next few months? How do we address issues of the internally displaced, the refugees, the migrants and people seeking asylum, and at-risk humans who are likely being excluded from the general narrative?

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted various social, physical, economic, and political issues that affects us globally, trickling down within national borders, and up to the smallest community. There are successes and there are painful failures in the responses to the pandemic. Internally displaced persons and families have yet to be given proper attention and sufficient care. The more we fail to provide for their needs leads to the erosion of their resilience, which undermines the sustainability and inclusivity of our cities and communities. We must bear in mind that in whatever strategy we undertake facing any crisis, long-term and durable solutions should never ignore or leave no one behind.


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Document links last validated on: 16 July 2021

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