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

Yesterday 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 John Magrathcauses of internal displacement

the Forcibly displacedWhy 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.

However, IDMC finds that – perhaps surprisingly – there is relatively little information available about when and how drought leads to displacement, and therefore, about the true numbers of those internally displaced by drought. Perhaps because drought tends to be a creeping disaster, it may be more likely to add further pressure on households to send one or more of their members off to seek work elsewhere; that may be a relatively long-term and considered decision. Such people may be classed as voluntary or economic migrants, rather than as internally displaced. But not understanding the links to drought, or recognising people as being internally displaced as a result, may mask the (growing?) extent of the issue and may deprive people of access to attention and assistance.

The second factor behind displacement is even less recognised. That is, the numbers of people displaced

Mexico - migrants, IDPs or both?
Mexico – migrants, IDPs or both?

by criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity. A new special report by FEWSNET on coffee in Central America highlights the pressures put on people by the gangs – the ‘maras’ – “forcing many people to avoid going to their farms during harvest, for fear of extortion, or their income is reduced because they have to pay a tax to save their lives”.

There is a direct and established link between criminal violence and migration – that is, the decision by people to get out of their country altogether and move to another one, as from Central America to the USA. But there is very little data on the numbers of people who move within a country, leaving their locality for another. Naturally, people fleeing criminal violence often do so in small numbers and keep a deliberately low profile. Such people, say IDMC, may ‘fall through the gaps’ when it comes to protection, “leaving them with little choice other than to embark on dangerous migrations”. If they are classified at all, they too may be seen as economic migrants; but they left “because they were or felt obliged to flee, rather than exercising a free choice to move solely to improve their economic circumstances”.


The third reason behind mass displacement is – sadly – development; that is, development projects initiated by governments in the interests of ‘national development’. Such projects include big dams, infrastructure for major sporting events, ports, mines, parks and wildlife sanctuaries, special economic zones and urban renewal. Such projects displace, at a very conservative estimate, 15 million people per year. The lack of data here is truly disturbing, particularly because it can be deliberate; as IDMC says, even “those [figures] that are reported may be underestimates to increase the chances of the project being approved and funded”. And IDMC drily notes that when it comes to displacement by big projects, international humanitarian organisations “are not on the front lines….this may be due to lack of awareness, limited resources, restricted access and a wish to avoid jeopardising their relations with the authorities”.

The people who have to move in the national interest “usually pay the price for development projects and

Central African Republic
Central African Republic

end up worse off”, and “impoverishing and disempowering people in the name of development also allows human rights abuses to continue unchallenged”.  IDMC also notes that such projects create “an inflated sense of progress because indicators that track development….capture gains but not setbacks”.

Where does this leave us? Clearly much needs to be done to capture better data and enable better analysis and policy formation, and IDMC is busy pushing on these. But behind the figures are millions of individual human beings – people facing everyday threats, violence and insecurity who cannot see any escape and become mentally and physically ill; people up against a powerful faceless government who have no choice but to move or be bulldozed out of the way; people facing incessant drought who can’t see the rain coming again in the future. The common link is the loss of hope – and as Greek myth has it, hope is the last thing left to humans. If millions of people lose hope and sink into despair, the ramifications are tragic, disturbing – and potentially very dangerous.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


6 Responses to “Why do people flee their homes? The answers may surprise you”
  1. Andrea

    Thanks for this enlightening article. I would like to add that criminal violence is a driver from migrations also in so called developed countries. Southern Italy is a clear of example of this.

  2. Mr Gareth Price-Jones

    Another big but invisible driver is debt, which not only forces people to move, but also prevents them from using the social capital they do have to make a good fist of it in the new location. Have talked to numerous smallholders who hope year after year for a good harvest to make it right again, only to be left to slink away in the night after yet another climate-related flood.

  3. Peter Morgan

    I see that IDMC has chosen to categorize internal displacement as caused by drought, criminal activity, or development projects. Drought, however, is only a major aspect of decreasing food production, with soil degradation of other kinds also possibly important, as also may be infrastructure damage from catastrophic weather events. Increasing population or changing demographics may create significant pressures to relocate even if food production remains constant (four children, one small piece of land).

  4. David Kipp

    Thank you for the article. I would like to raise the follow-up question to “where does this leave us”: Which Institution should be responsible for collecting and analyzing the data on these phenomena (thus informing development policy etc)? Should it be IDMC? Wouldn’t that be problematic, because the people displaced by these “forgotten drivers” might also cross borders. Then they aren’t IDPs anymore, but also not refugees according to the 1951 convention/UNHCR.