Protracted Displacement – Setting the Scene

  • Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is the largest in the world hosting some 350,000 mainly Somali refugees. Photo: Brendan Bannon / IOM / UNHCR

Contemporary patterns and processes of forced displacement do not easily lend themselves to resolution through the three classic durable solutions of return, local integration or resettlement (or relocation for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)). The underlying dynamics of current complex emergencies defy political solutions and so, according to a recent World Bank study, the average duration of exile for current refugees is 10.3 years.[1]

Moreover, almost two thirds of the world’s 21.3 million refugees in protracted displacement come from just six countries (Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)). In 2014, there were 53 countries in which people had been living in internal displacement for more than 10 years.[2] These data exclude the millions who flee crises but are not recognised as displaced.

As for the three durable solutions to displacement, in 2014, only 126,800 refugees returned to their countries of origin, the lowest level since 1983[3]. Not only do refugees not go “home”; rarely do more than 10% of the almost one million refugees who seek UNHCR-mediated third country resettlement each year achieve that outcome; and resistance to resettlement is growing. The third solution is the most under-reported, with only 32,000 refugees naturalised in 2015.

Protracted displacement is thus a key indicator that the three durable solutions are rarely achievable today. There are conceptual and operational reasons why protracted displacement is now the norm.

First, a range of factors propel forced displacement. In countries such as Somalia, Syria and Iraq, indiscriminate patterns of violence and conflict, mostly at intrastate level, challenge the capacity of the international community to promote peace building and lasting political solutions. Other drivers such as human rights violations, poverty and poor governance also precipitate involuntary migration, such as, in Zimbabwe or Mali. These factors often reflect fragile underlying conditions, such as, water scarcity, food insecurity, drought, environmental degradation, and famine for example in the Horn of Africa. Often a combination of factors lies at the core of displacement.

Another contemporary characteristic of current crises is episodic violence and thus recurring and multiple displacements. Over almost four decades, millions of Afghans have become refugees at different times, returned home at different times - often under pressure from the host country - only to become IDPs or refugees again in different phases of the conflict. Turbulence over such a long period reinforces the protractedness of displacement.

Natural disasters are also a major driver of displacement, potentially increasing with accelerating climate change. Although populations may generally return more easily than in the case of conflict-induced displacement, durable solutions are not always available. Failure to resolve land and other issues after the 2010 Haiti earthquake has left hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents in protracted displacement. Where return is feasible, it may take time to be accomplished. Resettlement is an option but is only available to small numbers of affected people: the majority remain in protracted displacement.

Finally, weaknesses in current humanitarian and development responses - programming, assistance, livelihoods support, poor coordination, and lack of participation and empowerment of affected populations - all hamper the potential to achieve durable solutions for protracted displacement.

The three durable solutions are underscored by a preoccupation with ending mobility and movement. They are predicated on: a finite physical place – “home” or a third country for example; a finite event – the return of exiled populations, for example; a finite state - usually institutionalised through the Cessation clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention and tripartite plans for return; and a finite status - when protection and assistance are terminated.

These markers of so called durability are rarely achievable today. For many populations there is seldom a predictable path from displacement to a finite end point and a fixed outcome; instead a continuum of mobility and migration is often key to livelihood strategies, providing a sustainable means of dealing with the long term consequences of displacement.

Nor, in most cases, is there a finite event – “return” for example - or a finite “one size fits all” event – an international plan of action or a resettlement strategy. Some displaced people may return, others may resettle and some may have integrated in the host country. These outcomes take place over time and are usually un-coordinated, spontaneous and incremental.

Finally, there is unlikely to be a finite status. For many, displacement does not end at a point in time – households may have continuing requirements for livelihood assistance and rights protection. These necessities vary from place to place, community to community and through time. In sum, the relatively narrow conceptualization of durable solutions as sequential, mutually exclusive and permanent has been too inflexible and rigid to capture what has been happening on the ground.

The limitations to the three durable solutions discussed above are not an argument to discard them. Their relevance remains, but they are insufficient of themselves to resolve contemporary situations of large scale, protracted displacement. They form part of a wider and more varied palette of responses.

In-line with the move away from existing finite and fixed modalities, the following factors should be considered:

  • A crucial assumption on which the three durable solutions are predicated is that external actors and agencies provide ‘solutions’. But durable solutions cannot be provided by external stakeholders only supported by them. Rather, solutions are long-term processes which are led by, and depend on the displaced and affected populations themselves; their perspective and aspirations are central to the meaning and realisation of durability.
  • Highlighting a continuum of needs- and rights- based vulnerabilities of affected people shifts the definition of durable solutions away from finite conditions and status based determinants towards characteristics which transcend the ‘end-of-movement’ objectives: for example interventions that provide sustained underpinning for coping and self-reliance strategies for displaced populations and affected communities.
  • The needs of different populations beyond those who are forcibly displaced should be distinguished: for example migrants and affected communities, who may be directly or indirectly impacted by displacement.
  • Populations are not homogenous. Different communities and households have different protection needs and varying levels of social and economic vulnerability: thus they will achieve satisfactory thresholds of self-sufficiency, protection and human rights, if at all, through different means and at different times.
  • Displaced populations should no longer be considered as sedentary and ‘out of place’; rather mobility should be recognised not as a problem but as a self-directed and self-sustaining ‘solution’ that should be encouraged as an opportunity. Whether it is durable or not depends on how humanitarian and development actors support and facilitate these strategies, for example assisting migration and ensuring protection, or by easing the flow of remittances.
  • A continuum of needs is predicated on transitional responses leading to more sustainable outcomes of self-reliance and resilience building.
  • Finally, it is important to establish some metrics for determining how the thresholds of assistance, protection and rights are measured, when they have been reached, and who measures them. In this context, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Framework and the criteria and associated indicators are a starting point.

It is important that we consider more dynamic processes and activities that underpin more fluid and nuanced sustainable ways of resolving displacement situations; these must be anchored in a coherent understanding of the needs and aspirations of displaced communities themselves.

Roger Zetter is Emeritus Professor of Refugee Studies at the University of Oxford and has written extensively on displacement, including in relation to climate and environmental change, the economic costs and impacts of forced migration and protection and forced displacement. He supported IOM in the analysis of contemporary displacement trends and challenges to existing approaches to durable solutions, which informed the development of IOM’s Progressive Resolution of Displacement Situations Framework, aspects of which are reflected in this blog.  Contact:


[1] World Bank (2016) ‘Forcibly Displaced: Toward a development approach supporting refugees, the internally displaced, and their hosts’ World Bank: Washington DC, page 11.

[2] Ibid, page 12.

[3] A number which slightly increased in real figures in 2015 to 201,400 repatriations