Forced Displacement: From Humanitarian Crisis to Development Opportunity

BY: Regis Blanc - 07. December 2021

The last decade saw the highest-ever recorded number of people displaced by conflict and violence. The number of forcibly displaced persons (FDPs), as categorized by the UNHCR, both within countries and across borders, has doubled in the last 10 years to reach 82 million in 2020. While displacements continue to increase, the efforts to support displaced people to find durable solutions are insufficient. In the wake of the recent report of the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, now is the time to promote a holistic approach towards forced displacement and strengthen the shifts towards the recognition to address these issues from a long-term development perspective, rather than only through short-term humanitarian actions.

Humanitarian indicators have shown worrying trends over the last years, as is illustrated by the increasing number of conflicts and disasters affecting more and more people and ecosystems. There is no shortage of examples: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Myanmar, the Horn of Africa, the whole Sahel region, Syria and Venezuela – just to name a few. The increasing number of Humanitarian Response Plans (HRP), which are drafted when an emergency requires international assistance, also provide a good indicator of this trend, while revealing the growing number of countries in protracted crisis.

As a consequence of a combination of conflicts, extreme weather events and weak governance, people flee their homes in search of protection and prospects for a better life. There were 41 million forcibly displaced persons (FDPs) in 2010, and the figure was more than 82 million at the end of 2020. There are currently an estimated 48 million new and existing internally displaced persons (IDPs), increasing from 25 million in 2010, with the number of refugees doubling to 26 million over the same time period. (See our other recent article about the terminology that shapes discussions on this topic, "Migration and Forced Displacement: Two Sides of the Same Coin.")

The UNHCR’s data takes into account the number of forcibly displaced people both within countries and across borders as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order (for additional data analysis, see the Migration Data Portal). As illustrated in the figure below, these data do not cover stateless people (e.g., from Myanmar in Bangladesh) or people in mixed migration flows (e.g., in Central America or North Africa), among others.

About 40% of the FDPs are children below 18 years of age, and most displaced people live in fragile countries. Comprehensive sex-disaggregated data are missing, but women constitute a significant proportion of FDPs and about half the IDP population, and face some specific challenges (e.g., sexual and gender based-violence), as detailed in the UNHCR Global Report 2020.

Durable solutions needed

For some years now, policymakers and practitioners have been focusing on the need to find and facilitate durable solutions for FDPs, and notably for IDPs. The 2010 Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons defines durable solutions as being achieved when “IDPs no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement.” It can be done through sustainable reintegration at the place of origin (voluntary return), local integration in areas where displaced persons take refuge (local integration) or in another part of the country based on their choice (relocation).

National and international plans and strategies have been developed (e.g., Somalia Durable Solutions Initiative, GP20 Plan of Action and GP2.0, Global Compact on Refugees, UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement) and international standards adopted (i.e., Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement). Despite these efforts and some advances, few FDPs are benefitting today from a sustainable solution; instability and insecurity in their countries of origin impedes voluntary return, policy restrictions often limit local integration (in both the Global North and Global South), and relocation is very expensive and limited. Most FDPs are therefore living in “protracted displacement” and lack long-term perspectives. This is particularly the case for IDPs, as highlighted in the recent report of the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement (HLP). The report focuses on IDPs, who are often invisible and marginalized since they remain in countries in crisis that are coping with inherent challenges (e.g., protection, weak trust in institutions, lack of perspectives) and cannot access fundamental international protection mechanisms.

The HLP report is a milestone in fostering political momentum for IDPs, but also more broadly for FDPs in general. It is also the latest contribution to the increasingly wide consensus recognizing that the challenge of forced displacement, particularly in the context of protracted crises, needs a comprehensive strategy from both humanitarian and developmental perspectives. Indeed, the existing “care and maintenance” model has proved insufficient and created aid dependency. While short-term emergency aid remains crucial for FDPs, they are often forgotten after humanitarians return home once an emergency intervention ends. As a consequence, they are excluded from programs and activities carried out by development and institutional actors, resulting in their developmental needs being neglected and no opportunities for self-reliance created.

This mindset change, namely addressing these issues from a long-term development perspective rather than only through short-term humanitarian actions, is clearly a work in progress. However, several good practices have emerged, in particular since the UN Development System Reform. Guidance on these practices can now be found on the digital platform of the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Protection Cluster, the website of the HLP, the new Research Internal Displacement platform, and in this UNDP report.

FDPs: Agents for development

Forcibly displaced persons possess tremendous potential to contribute to social transformation and inclusive development through their skills, knowledge, networks and will to build new lives for themselves. There is increasing recognition of FDPs as potential contributors to development rather than passive recipients of assistance. Investing in long-term solutions for FDPs not only enables them to improve their self-reliance, but can also reduce the economic impacts and costs of displacement, while contributing to economic recovery. The increasing scale and duration of forced displacement has led to the recognition of the need to promote sustainable livelihoods for FDPs and hosting communities alike, as well as to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of large-scale displacement on host countries, since the arrival of FDPs often change social relations and dynamics, which carries socio-economic, political and cultural challenges.

How can we, as international cooperation actors, further support their development and their role as agents for change and development?

At a planning level, treating forced displacement as a core development issue and fostering FDPs as agents for change means three things:

  • First, continuing to strengthen collaboration between development, humanitarian and peace actors from the very beginning of a crisis (nexus-based approach) and implementing programs that integrate different sectors (multi-sectoral approach, by including sectors such as governance, human rights, peace, education, etc.).
  • Second, it implies increased investment to prevent crises and, by extension, displacement.
  • Last, but not least, it also means promoting national and state ownership by supporting the integration of forced displacement into national development plans.

At an operational level, it means, among other things:

  • Ensuring protection by understanding and addressing persistent safety and security risks that prevent FDPs from feeling safe enough to re-establish their lives in the area of destination;
  • Improving access to basic services, including education, health and social protection, with the aim of guaranteeing both short-term needs and long-term prospects;
  • Enhancing access to livelihoods, income and employment opportunities, including to formal labor markets, in partnership with the local private sector in order to improve the self-sufficiency and resilience of FDPs;
  • Fostering social cohesion and inclusive governance through the promotion of meaningful participation, inclusive decision making and accountability of institutions.

At policy level, it means:

  • Sustaining momentum created by the HLP and advocating for a full integration of forced displacement into the development agenda;
  • Promoting inclusive and honest discussions on forced displacement issues, its opportunities and challenges, and the political obstacles to addressing forced displacement in an integrated manner;
  • Promoting state ownership on these issues, while catalyzing political will.

Our Lessons Learned Through Humanitarian Response Work

Helvetas’ commitment to supporting poor and disadvantaged men and women means that its work increasingly takes place in fragile and conflict-affected regions. To cope with protracted crises situations, Helvetas has gradually increased its engagement in humanitarian responses, with a strong focus on the nexus approach, linking humanitarian relief and rehabilitation work with longer-term development perspectives. Through its experience over the years, Helvetas has identified several good practices and lessons learned. These include:

  • Improving host-FDP relations through economic interdependence: The project “Enhancing Food Security, Self Reliance and Livelihoods” (EFSL), implemented in the refugee camps 4, 6, 7, and 17, Ukhiya upzila in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), has successfully promoted a Local Service Provider (LSP) model which helped to build social cohesion between host and Rohingya communities. The LSPs from the host community were accepted positively by the Rohingya community for their door-to-door technical and mentoring support on vegetable production. Engagement of LSPs in camps created an opportunity for exchange between the Rohingya community and LSPs from the host community to share their ideas and perceptions about vegetable production.
  • Empowering youth through skills development: The CAP-CD project aims at contributing to the development of life skills for adolescents in three districts of Cabo Delgado. It supports young people, including IDPs, in an emergency context resulting from armed attacks and cyclone Kenneth. The flexible training model developed by Helvetas (i.e. Cooperative Group Approach), as a non-formal skills development model, has proven to be particularly appropriate for this milieu with high insecurity and COVID-19. This model includes newly identified occupations, responding very rapidly to the evolving needs and promoting the competencies brought by IDPs. The approach appeared as flexible enough to provide a direct response to a disrupted educational system, to adapt it to a fragile context and to build the first steps of post-crisis recovery as well as promote longer-term prospects for displaced adolescents.
  • Involving faith leaders in social cohesion: The project “Provision of support to the humanitarian response for the benefit of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh” provided awareness sessions with faith leaders from both communities to foster social cohesion. It helped to conduct community-based awareness using positive messages, including spiritual and value transformation to the community on tolerance.
  • Joint community dialogues for ensuring sustainability: The project "WASHPRO” in Burkina Faso aims to provide immediate assistance to IDPs and host families, while at the same time creating longer-term perspectives. It involves local actors and beneficiaries in the implementation of activities by strengthening their capacities and by organizing frameworks for dialogue on humanitarian issues at the local level to ensure the sustainability of actions and foster social cohesion. Citizen Monitoring Committees have been formed to monitor the planning and execution of tasks entrusted to the various committees and local authorities. This ensures greater transparency and fairness, which is essential for conflict prevention.



Helvetas neither encourages nor discourages people from migration. We recognize migration as a viable livelihood strategy.
© Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto/AFP

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