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Elizabeth Ferris
Georgetown University

Recent weeks have witnessed a veritable flood of reports on the effects – or more commonly, the potential effects – of COVID-19 on refugees and others impacted by humanitarian crises.  But if you’re looking for hard information on internally displaced persons (IDPs) and COVID-19, even nuggets of data, you come up empty.  Even the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the world’s go-to place for analysis and data on IDPs, concludes that ‘it’s too early to fully grasp how COVID-19 will affect the tens of millions of people displaced within their own countries … we can only imagine what it will mean’. 

There’s just not much information.  UNHCR confirmed one COVID-19 case in a Somali IDP and IOM reported ‘the first case’ of an IDP with COVID-19 in early April.  The overall data on the number of COVID-19 reported cases isn’t much help either.  According to the COVID-19 Johns Hopkins database, as of 29 April, there were 1,728 reported cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria (where there are 2.6 million IDPs, according to IDMC) and 43 in Syria with its 6.5 million IDPs.  Given the lack of testing, few observers have much confidence that these reported figures tell anything close to the whole story. And in some cases, such as El Salvador and Venezuela, while there are figures for reported COVID-19 cases (395 and 331 respectively), we don’t even know how many IDPs there are in these countries, much less how many have been infected.  

You can find snippets of information that seem to be relevant.  For example, the International Rescue Committee reports that South Sudan has only 24 ICU beds and four ventilators while 65% of the country’s population requires humanitarian assistance, including 2.1 million IDPs.  Venezuela is better off with 84 ventilators for the entire country, but we simply don’t know how many Venezuelans are internally displaced, although given the fact that close to five million Venezuelans have left the country, we can ‘imagine’ that internal displacement is not an insignificant phenomenon.

For as long as I can remember, IDP advocates have bemoaned the lack of solid data on IDPs, begging especially for disaggregated data on gender and age.  (The pleas have a particular resonance now as we know that older populations seem more likely to suffer serious consequences from COVID-19.)  IDMC does brilliant work on IDP statistics (and kudos on their launch on 28 April of their latest Global Report on Internal Displacement), but even IDMC notes the shortcomings in data on IDPs and calls for more analysis.

We’re flying blind when it comes to projecting the impact of COVID-19 on IDPs.  It seems safe to assume that cases of COVID-19 are underreported, that health systems will be inadequate to care for large numbers of people who become seriously ill from the virus, and that people who are already malnourished and traumatized by war are probably more susceptible to it. It is logical to assume (but it is still an assumption) that border restrictions and disruptions in supply chains will make it difficult for international agencies to deliver aid to IDPs  – especially when, as Human Rights Watch reported this week, the UN Security Council fails to re-authorize cross-border aid deliveries into Syria. We read reports that COVID-19 restrictions are making it more difficult to deliver life-saving aid. It’s also reasonable to assume that the withdrawal of international aid workers, from countries like Yemen and Afghanistan, will impact service delivery to IDPs.

It’s also perhaps logical to assume that as people continue to flee violence and as borders close (as in Uganda), people may be unable to escape and that IDP numbers will increase.  There are scattered reports that people who face COVID-19 related discrimination, such as health workers, may also be forced to leave their communities and join the ranks of the IDPs.  

I worry about IDPs’ ability to access health services. While IDPs – as citizens of their countries, unlike refugees – shouldn’t experience discrimination in availing themselves of their countries’ hospitals, they may be unfamiliar with the health system in their community of displacement, lack the necessary documentation, or simply be afraid to request such assistance.  I worry about places like al-Hol camp in northern Syria – ‘only’ 70,000 people but already in desperate conditions.

And then there is the always-thorny issue of IDP livelihoods. The International Labour Organization reports that the world’s 1.6 billion workers in the informal sector have seen their incomes fall by 60% as a result of the economic crisis generated by COVID-19 (81% in Africa and the Americas). How are IDPs faring? Does anyone know? Is anyone keeping track?

I echo Alex Randall’s concern about the vulnerability to COVID-19 of those displaced by climate change-related disasters. Last year almost 25 million people were displaced by disasters, most weather-related, and the majority in Asia. Cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes are likely to continue in 2020.  Evacuation centres are known for being overcrowded – what chance is there for social distancing?

We know that epidemics – unlike other types of humanitarian emergencies – typically don’t displace large numbers of people. Rather epidemics tend to limit human movement – leading to confinement, border closures, and restrictions on internal travel, even in developed countries such as Australia and Canada. ACAPS’ impressive  dataset on COVID-19 government measures is filled with orders to quarantine and shelter-in-place, and limitations on internal movements.  Maybe in addition to looking at the impact of COVID-19 on IDPs, we should also be looking at those who can’t move, the confined or the trapped.  

We can make informed guesses about the impact of COVID-19 on IDPs – and those guesses are pretty scary. But we really don’t know until we have better data. More generally, we may wonder whether anyone will pay attention to the plight of the world’s IDPs when all of the energy is going to the impacts of COVID-19, and what little attention is left is directed toward humanitarian crises generally or to refugees.


Dr Elizabeth Ferris is Research Professor with the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service


Read Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam introducing COVID-19 Watch with ‘The impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s displaced people: A watching brief’, and find all the analysis in COVID-19 Watch. Don’t miss any new posts, follow the Kaldor Centre on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn and subscribe free to our Weekly News Roundup, delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Image source: UNHCR/Essam Adduais


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