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Why do people flee their homes? The answers may surprise you

Duncan Green's picture

June 21 was World Refugee Day and a new UN report put the total number of ‘forcibly displaced’ at 65.3 million. Most of those remained within national boundaries (internally displaced). Oxfam researcher John Magrath summarizes a recent study on the causes of internal displacement.

Why do people become displaced? That is, forcibly displaced in that they have, or believe they have, no other choice but to leave their homes? You would think we would know. After all, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in its latest annual report points out that in 2015 a record number of 27.8 million people were newly displaced; and the reasons were conflict, violence and disasters. We are familiar with the overall picture: the Middle East and North Africa account for over half those displaced by conflict and violence; South and East Asian countries, especially India and China, saw the most people displaced by disasters. Once people are displaced, they tend to stay displaced so the numbers add up cumulatively; in 2015 there were nearly 49 million in total living as internally displaced people just because of conflict and violence.

But dig beneath and beyond those figures, as IDMC does, and an even more disturbing picture emerges of reasons and trends. IDMC puts the spotlight on three issues that demand more attention. One is drought, of the kind exacerbated by this year’s El Niño event. That may seem unsurprising; after all, it is obvious that drought dries up precious water sources and scorches crops and as this moving video from Oxfam in the Dominican Republic shows,  the result is that farmers get into debt and can end up selling their farms – their homes – and becoming wandering labourers.