Forcibly Displaced Non-refugees: Displaced by Violence

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, May 6, 2019 to Friday, May 10, 2019
Conversation type: 

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provides protection for people forcibly displaced by threats of persecution and violence. The convention defines these people as refugees, those who are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” However, while the 1951 Convention put in place important protections for vulnerable groups around the world, it did not provide protection for all populations experiencing forced displacement. This conversation will focus on people forcibly displaced by violence and conflict. Due to the definition’s emphasis on personal discrimination, many people whose safety is threatened by the violence around them but not necessarily directed at them are excluded from the same protection given to refugees. Internally displaced people (IDPs) are also excluded from the refugee definition because they have not left the borders of their country, even though they may be experiencing similar hardships as refugees. Finally, stateless populations’ lack of citizenship can make it difficult for them to access refugee status.

The UNHCR has taken steps to provide resources and protection to people who fall outside of the refugee definition but some argue that these populations are still not afforded the same level of protection and attention as refugees. A number of different solutions to this issue have been advocated for, ranging from requiring that governments and NGOs put more resources towards these other displaced populations to including these populations in the UN definition of refugee. All of these recommendations bring their own obstacles to their implementation. This conversation explores the challenges non-refugee populations forcibly displaced by violence face and how to address these challenges.

Thank you to our featured resource practitioners who led the conversation:

  • Savitri Taylor, La Trobe University
  • Davina Wadley, SNAP
  • Yael Schacher, Refugee International
  • Alex Aleinikoff, The New School in New York
  • Max Cherem, Kalamazoo College
  • Chloe Sydney, International Displacement Monitoring Center


The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines who qualifies as refugees. There has been an attempt by the UNHCR to distinguish between “refugees” and “migrants”, stating that refugees are not considered to be migrants. This narrow definition excludes many groups of people fleeing their homes, especially those fleeing within the borders of their home country. It is argued that this distinction was created out of fear of large numbers. The broader the definition, the more people would qualify, and the fewer obligations states would be willing to accept to protect this group.

Stateless Populations

In a domestic context, a person’s access to human rights is often linked to their citizenship status, because citizens are usually afforded more rights than non-citizens. Therefore, a person who is stateless will have limited access to basic human rights. In addition, non-documented stateless people can be at a higher risk of human trafficking and arbitrary detention. Many Rohingya people are faced with being stateless because of the discriminatory application of Myanmar Citizenship Law that often denies Rohingya their right to acquire and confirm citizenship status. Statelessness Network Asia Pacific (SNAP) is a civil society coalition that works to promote and address statelessness in Asia and the Pacific. Part of the work includes submissions to UN human rights mechanisms and publications.

Statelessness can also be the result when children are born in countries where mothers are unable to pass on their nationality to their children. In Brunei, Kiribati, Malaysia and Nepal, the laws expressly do not afford women equal rights in conferring their nationality to children. The consequence of this is a risk of statelessness for the children if their father’s are stateless, absent, unwilling or unable to confer their nationality.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDP)

During the 1990s the UN saw the need of defining internally displaced persons (IDP), and in 1999 the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were completed. The principles are non-binding, but states have embraced them as there was a need for clarification of the term. However, it is argued that there might be time to review these, as the principles give governments the primary protective role of IDPs, which can be challenging when the governments themselves are causing displacement. Further, some states have shown an unwillingness to respond to the need of the IDPs, and international humanitarian response has been inconsistent. Currently, there has been renewed focus on IDP by the UN through the Global Compact on Refugees, where they recognize the need to avoid further forced displacement and the importance of taking into account the challenges of internal displacement.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) has researched the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements in order to draw attention to the importance of resolving internal displacement. Their research shows that many IDPs become refugees when they are unable to achieve durable solutions in their home countries, while many refugees become IDPs after returning to their home countries. For example, many Iraqi nationals that have returned from Syrian refugee camps, are now living in IDP camps in Iraq either because their homes were destroyed, they lacked the necessary documentation or because they did not have the financial capital to travel back to their areas of origin. Because of this connection, some argue that efforts should be made to promote durable solutions along the entire displacement continuum.

Within the definition created of IDPs, economic migrants are excluded. The term economic migrant is an umbrella title, and does not have a legal definition, which makes it challenging to determine what the term actually includes. Economic migrants and forced migrants are also often viewed as being mutually exclusive categories. In a U.S. context, it has been more difficult to make a distinction between economic and political reasons for asylum seekers at the U.S. border, compared to refugees that were already vetted overseas. An example is that of sailors arriving from Poland and Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s. They had a harder time proving that they were refugees and not economic migrants, than Poles and Yugoslavs that applied to resettle in the U.S. from a refugee camp or third country in Europe, although their circumstances might have all been similar.

As there are so many different groups of migrants and as many reasons for becoming IDPs, the policy responses created must be tailored to each specific situation. It is not possible to create one set of policies that will work sufficiently in all situations. This represents another challenge when trying to deal with IDPs.

Climate Change

It has been suggested that perhaps a solution to the protection gap for IDPs could be addressed by focusing on climate change rather than trying to change the Guiding Principles. However, it is often challenging to determine the main motivation for movement when it comes to climate change, as other factors such as socio-economic may influence the decision. In Somalia, IDPs might say that they were displaced because of Al-Shahab, while the whole reason was that they could not afford to pay illegal taxes to Al-Shahab as a result of the loss of their livestock due to drought. Further, it is argued that there should be a right to relocation for people experiencing sea-level rise or complete submersion, because this is a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions by the international community. No one single state is responsible for climate change, so rather the international community as a whole must embrace the right to relocation for these people.

With the complex factors influencing the decision-making process, both violence and climate change can be reasons for migration. In Central America there are migrants fleeing gang and economic instability, while at the same experiencing the effects of climate change. This adds a complicating factor to the struggles these people are faced with.