In the 22 years in which we have been counting, the global number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has never been as high as it is today.
Africa is a primary crucible of this global challenge. In 2019, over half of the world’s displacement by conflict – some 4.8 million movements – took place across the continent.
In 2019, we saw a massive escalation of conflict displacement due to armed insurgency in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.
2019 and displacement across Africa
We saw continued displacement caused by conflict in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.
Meanwhile just about every region on the continent was touched by natural disaster. 2019 saw Cyclones Idai and Kenneth destroying millions of homes and livelihoods in Southern and Eastern Africa, and uprooting over half a million people.
There are also countries that are both hit by conflict and disaster. Last year, Ethiopia saw over a million people uprooted by conflict, and half a million by disaster.
Living conditions for IDPs
The vast majority of IDPs live in overcrowded spaces with limited access to healthcare, whether that be in cities such as Mogadishu, or in camps over in Uganda, Ethiopia or the DRC.
READ MORE: 2019 and displacement across Africa
The people living in these makeshift facilities lack water for drinking, washing and cooking. There are no schools to send their children to and they struggle to earn a decent living. They lack rights, information, and often hope.
Together, they make up some of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised communities.
Impact of COVID-19
The global coronavirus pandemic has already begun hitting the world’s poorest and most fragile countries.
But among IDPs, that impact will be even greater.
Limited testing and reporting means we cannot know the full number worldwide, but the first cases of coronavirus among IDPs have been officially recorded in Iraq and Burkina Faso.
Mid-April saw the first cases announced in Nigeria’s Borno State, which hosts some 1.5 million IDPs, the vast majority in overcrowded camps.
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Coronavirus has forced border closures across the Sahel which has led to increased internal displacement, as tens of thousands of people continue to flee Islamist violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
“Perfect spreading grounds for the virus”
The ever-present menace of water-borne diseases is already raising the question of what measures need to be taken, as concentrations of displaced people are likely to become the perfect spreading ground for coronavirus.
We can already imagine what might happen in countries where health infrastructure, staffing and equipment are already severely strained.
In swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, there is one doctor for every 10,000 people. In the Central African Republic, barely three ventilators are available for a population of five million.
We are now looking at another crisis in the making, in which the vulnerabilities of those displaced, and the risks that they face, will be multiplied by the effects of this virus.
Reversing the trend
Governments across Africa and the world over are taking action to prevent displacement and start reversing these trends. Increasingly, they know what to do; they have the capacity to act, and above all the political will to do so.
In 2019, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and Ghana took important steps in reporting publicly on their progress in addressing internal displacement as part of their national plans and priorities.
The DRC will do so in later this year in 2020. New approaches to displacement were launched in Ethiopia and Somalia, home to nearly 4.5 million IDPs between them, while Uganda models a dedicated IDP policy covering both conflict and disaster displacement, both in prevention and in finding durable solutions.
South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia have ratified the Kampala Convention, the African Union’s unique and legally binding framework on the phenomenon.
Systems for data collection and analysis have been developed in Mali, along with a system of population movement alerts and tracing of internal displacement, coordinated by regional and local authorities. Last year’s increased displacement in Mali is at least in part due to better data collection.
“Shining an unforgiving light”
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining an unforgiving light on the world’s most vulnerable and marginal people. Our only hope is that as governments respond to this health crisis, the pandemic can also accelerate their longer-term commitment to protect and assist IDPs who face the greatest risks, and find ways to end the displacement within their borders.
They have already shown that it’s possible. There will never be a greater reason or a better time to get it right than now.
For full report: 2020 Global Report on Internal Displacement
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