by Mewded Esayas Woldemariam

Photo Credit: ICRC (NC-ND / ICRC / Andrea Minetti)

The novel coronavirus, as Covid-19 is commonly called, was first detected in Wuhan, China and has since expanded into a global pandemic as announced by the WHO on 11 March 2020. Although all are vulnerable to this highly infectious disease which has claimed above 200,000 lives as of 5 May, not all are equally vulnerable.[1] Although they constitute the overwhelming majority of displaced persons, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are especially at risk.[2] Despite often displaced due to armed conflict,[3] they are not supported by the kind of specific institutional[4] and normative framework targeting the protection of refugees.

In the context of international humanitarian law (IHL), the status of “internally displaced person” (IDP) does not exist for humanitarian purposes. This is because IHL seeks to protect all civilians without distinction in situations of armed conflict. Nevertheless, for the purpose of better understanding the subject of this article, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement[5] define IDP as “a person or group of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border”.[6] This definition demonstrates that IDPs can emerge in multiple contexts, including some beyond the scope of IHL. Thus, IDPs can be said to be in the purview of international human rights law and national law (where applicable) as well.[7]

Yet, there is no universal and binding international instrument governing such displaced persons. The UN Guiding Principles, though recognized as an important benchmark with regard to IDPs, was developed by a board of independent experts not representing the individual states, thus failing to qualify as a “soft law” instrument.[8] It is notable however that African Union ratified the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention) in 2009, the first and only existing international hard law on IDPs.[9] The definition of IDP employed in this convention is similar to that of the Guiding Principles, but it is framed in such a way as to make the particular duties of states more evident.[10]

Coming to the IHL regime, although the status of IDP per se is not recognized, the Geneva Conventions do contain rules that protect civilians, and IDPs by extension. Examples include the prohibitions on methods of warfare that involve attacking civilians, forcefully displacing them, destroying their means of living or barring humanitarian aid.[11] The ICRC, mandated with implementing the Geneva Conventions, engages in protection activities whereby it seeks to reduce the occurrence or consequences of displacement by encouraging parties to the conflict to respect IHL and by undertaking tracing and other activities.[12] However, the ICRC is not primarily mandated or concerned with providing physical assistance to displaced persons, including IDPs. This is to say that it only carries out activities such as building camps, providing food, water, healthcare or financial support when other NGOs or associations fail to or cannot do so.[13]

Given the current global pandemic, it is imperative that IDPs receive just such assistance. The burden lies foremost with states[14], but also with organizations such as the UN and relevant NGOs. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID)[15], IDPs totaled 50.8 million as of 31 December 2019.[16] 45.7 million of these were displaced as a result of conflict and violence.[17] Many of the areas where these displacements occurred have economic and health systems that are already struggling with the burden of tackling the pandemic and are overburdened when it comes to providing IDPs with the necessary assistance. As it is, displaced persons living among host communities are often found in informal settlements, surviving on the informal economy and lacking access to proper information regarding the pandemic. Even if they were aware of it, they would find it more difficult to access affordable healthcare.[18] Those living in camps face overcrowded conditions[19], poor sanitation and limited access to clean water.[20] Given the shortcomings of the hygiene standards in these camps, it is unlikely that IDPs will be able to comply with the preventive measures Covid-19 necessitates.[21] It must also be noted that armed conflicts have not ceased, meaning that the phenomenon of displacement is still on the rise at the moment.

Amid this global pandemic, IDPs should not be ignored. The urgency of their situation requires increased awareness and assistance during this critical time. Since the foremost responsibility of protecting these persons lies with states, programs offering financial or health assistance should include IDPs among the beneficiaries. Moreover, it is imperative that parties to armed conflict, whether states or non-state armed groups respect IHL, ceasing conflict if possible.[22] In addition, the international community and relevant NGOs need to provide the necessary resources, whether financial or practical, in providing increased humanitarian aid to IDPs and their host communities.[23] The need for a collective global effort has never been more urgent.




[3] ICRC, Position on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 2 (2006)

[4] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1950, is primarily concerned with displaced persons who cross international boundaries. It is involved in structures built to address the needs of IDPs as well, particularly the “cluster approach”, which divides the labor among different UN organs in accordance with their mandate. However, the success of this approach has been limited. See Adama Dieng, Protecting internally displaced persons: The value of the Kampala Convention as a regional example at 267.

[5] The UN Guiding Principles were adopted in 1998 by the UN Human Rights Commission. It contents attempt to intersect elements IHL, international human rights law and international refugee law. See E. Odhiambo-Abuya, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Examining Overlapping Institutional Mandates of the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner For Refugees at 262.

[6] Para. 2 of the Preamble to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

[7] Supranote 3 at 3

[8] Adama Dieng, Protecting internally displaced persons: The value of the Kampala Convention as a regional example, 99 (1) INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF THE RED CROSS 263, 269 (2017)

[9] Id. at 273

[10] Id. at 275

[11] Supranote 3 at 3

[12] Jakob Kellenberger, The ICRC’s response to internal displacement: strengths, challenges and constraints, 91 (875) INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF THE RED CROSS 475, 486 (2009)

[13] Id. at 477

[14] E. Odhiambo-Abuya, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Examining Overlapping Institutional Mandates of the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, 7 SINGAPORE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW 236, 254 (2003)

[15] The GRID is annually developed by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and is the generally accepted source of statistics in this area.

[16] IDMC, Global Report on Internal Displacement, 2 (2020)

[17] Id. at 11

[18] Supranote 1



[21] Supranote 19

[22] IRC, Covid-19 in Humanitarian Crises: A Double Emergency, 17 (2020)

[23] Id. at 18