The Definitions and Status of Refugees, IDP’s, and Stateless Communities

Leigh Barrett
Oct 13, 2019 · 9 min read

by Leigh Barrett / Perspective Publications

Image for post
Image for post

10,000,000 — stateless people
15,000,000 — refugees
38,000,000 — Internally Displaced People
In 2015 alone, 65.3 million people fled their homes.
The statistics are overwhelming. The numbers of people who have been displaced from their homes, staggering.

Regardless of the number of digits in each statistic, it always comes down to each person, every individual, who is faced with life-changing, destructive forces, uprooting them from their lives, often forever.

Violence never stops at a country’s border, and each family impacted by the destruction others have wreaked upon their lives rarely has a choice but to find shelter away from all that is familiar. The lives every human should be leading: stable, with a job, a bank account, helping with the kid’s homework, and the mundane annoyance of bad weather, or the supermarket running out of stock of your favorite soap, is turned upside down when a government, or a group, picks up guns and wages war, and the inconvenience of the morning commute is lost in the necessity of fleeing for one’s very life. It takes extraordinary courage to pack a bag and leave everything familiar, simply to avoid the terrifying cacophony of gunfire and mortar shells, to protect one’s wife and daughters from what one knows, with absolute certainty, will be devastating violence on their bodies and souls, and to know with equal certainty, that one might never again practice one’s beloved profession, be it market vendor, cardiac surgeon, or teacher.

A Shiite villager who owned his land and worked as a farmer with his family found his village in the increasingly hostile hands of the Sunni. Verbal hints became hostile threats scrawled on his walls, which then devolved into attempts on the lives of his family. The risk of finding passage out of the village seemed worth taking, and the family found shelter with relatives in an informal IDP settlement. After their hurried departure, their homes were destroyed, and the land seconded by the Sunni tribal leaders, making it now impossible to sell, and leaving the family with little more than the clothes on their backs.


INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON — someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country’s borders.

STATELESS PERSON — a person not recognized as a citizen of any country

REFUGEE — a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

According to its latest report, UNHCR said more than 45.1 million people were displaced last year, the largest number since 1994. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs).

77% of the world’s internally displaced people live in 10 countries:
Syria — 7,600,000
Colombia — 6,044.200
Iraq — 3,376,000
Sudan — 3,100,000
DR Congo-2,756,000
Pakistan — 1,900,000
South Sudan — 1,498,200
Somalia — 1,106,800
Nigeria — 1,075,300
Turkey — 953,700

With some conflicts running into multiple years, the goal of repatriation has reached a 20-year low, and since 2009, the return rate is down to around a quarter of its average. The 25 developed nations who accept refugees have so far only taken less than 1% of all refugees in the world, and as they dither, refugees and IDPs become a permanent fixture, with little hope of returning to their homes. One of the largest refugee camps in the world, the Dadaab complex in Kenya, was constructed in the early 1990’s and the largest of the five camps in that complex, Hagadera, houses over 138,000 people, more than the populations of most medium-sized cities in America.

While the internally displaced still outnumber refugees by around two to one, refugees are still given more attention as aid agencies like UNHCR focus on them, while the internally displaced are generally at the mercy of their government, with varying levels of difficulty in gaining access to them.

Displaced populations are not neatly herded into camps, but rather disperse in areas where it becomes difficult for humanitarian aid groups to reach them. In many instances, urban areas absorb them, where they become all but invisible. The lack of progress in reforming the current aid system to deal with IDP, does not allow them to provide the support IDP’s need. The chance to “overstay their welcome” in urban as well as rural areas, also creates an economic strain on resources. Protracted displacement — when IDP live for longer than 10 years — is becoming more common, and many IDP have been forced to flee more than once in their lives. The further exposure to harassment and violence create a psychological damage that is much harder to quantify, and will no doubt only arise in future years, when the children of IDP have to deal with the emotional damage inflicted on them through conflict. Given that the majority of IDP are women and children (many men remain behind to fight or protect family property), the opportunities to become victims of trafficking, or other abuse, increases exponentially.

Many of the same routes are taken by all humans migrating, whether refugees, migrant workers, or those involved in human trafficking, making it more difficult for agencies and governments distinguish between those needing urgent assistance, and the human smugglers sending their fellow civilians on dangerous routes across land and sea. The large mass of humanity seeking a better life also means that neighboring and nearby countries are setting a much harder line, with dire impact on those who need protection, something that has been well reported throughout Europe as countries close their borders on the most desperate.

The welcome refugees often receive is often far less than they need. For some in those countries, understanding what it takes to uproot one’s family and flee from certain death, combined with a near-paranoia that their often much stronger economies are insufficient to take on an influx of needy people, is beyond their ken and the refugees instead come face-to-face with xenophobia, and a lack of humane treatment.

Humiliation, disrespect, and further instability, make the trauma of displacement even more intense, and in some cases, refugees are making the “Sophie’s Choice” decision to return to their countries of origin, instead of facing the extreme psychological pressure of staying in a camp.


While much of the world media’s focus has been on the Middle East and Africa, Colombia currently faces one of the most dramatic humanitarian emergencies. Armed groups, sexual violence, extortion and intimidation, causes around 300,000 people to flee their homes each year. Many head to urban centers, but find access to basic necessities extremely limited, resulting in a cycle of poverty which merely exacerbates the tension. But it isn’t merely remote and rural populations faced with seeking safety — urban municipalities see militarized groups threatening them, as well.

Displaced groups have also formed in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where people fled violence connected to drug trafficking and gang activity. Other causes are illegal resource extraction of products such as logging, marijuana, opium poppies, biofuels, and palm oil, fueling intra-community tensions.


Following Russia’s incursion into Crimea in 2014, IDP levels rose by over 30%. The problem expands beyond Ukraine into the Balkans, central Asia, Turkey, and Cyprus, with many IDPs displaced more than once, and the population of those seeking shelter is increased by the flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Without a political solution in both regions, displacement has become protracted.


The near impossibility of data gathering can only present a surmise of the situation across Africa, and it is unknown just how bad things really are. Inter-communal violence, tribal warfare, and food insecurity, all combine to create several pockets of IDP centers across the continent where conflict rages with little regard for the borders of Central African Republic, Burundi, DRC, South Sudan, Sudan, and Chad.

These central African countries have seen the most conflict of all regions, with at least 79 million IDP’s, and as these are also some of the most fragile states, politically and economically, the added burden of violence has created more instability than they can truly afford.

Some governments have also historically worked with militant groups and mercenaries to topple neighboring governments, and the resultant instability creates a vicious cycle of displaced populations. Control of natural resources is rapidly overtaking political power grabs, as food and water become scarcer with Africa at the epicenter of climate change, and the continent’s population and economies largely dependent on agriculture, both commercial and subsistence.

Central African Republic was the worst affected, now holding 70% of the sub-Saharan total population of 11.4 million IDPs. Boko Haram’s cross-border campaign drove at least three-quarters of that movement.

The presence of UN military bases form protective sites to which many IDP can find protection, but still many head to urban cities. The capital of Bangui in CAR, with an average population of around 740,000, saw a population explosion of over 42,500 IDP in 2014, straining shelter locations to almost breaking point, bringing the total of IDP within CAR to 421,000 and refugees from CAR to around 470,000.

Renewed fighting in Sudan and South Sudan, as well as increased food insecurity, displaced more than 1.3 million people, with almost 500,000 fleeing their homes in the Darfur region alone.


IDP increased by 1.5 million, bringing the total to just under 5 million across 13 countries. Most of the population is centered in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.

Pakistan saw inter-tribal fighting and as many as 907,000 fled their homes in the North Waziristan and Khyber agencies. Ethnic violence in India’s Assam state displaced around 345,000. The decrease in fighting in Myanmar and the Philippines made it the region with the only reduction and the lowest overall (reported) figures by the end of 2014. However, many displaced people have been unable to return or integrated, even after 15 years.


With the overall growing number of IDP, the economic impacts of growing poverty, increased stress on infrastructure, inadequate levels of education, and increased marginalization of the affected, will have a serious impact on the world in the future. Disaffected people will find their voices, and if their country cannot deal with the result of the growing anger, and predictable violence that will come from not managing the IDP with a sense of urgency, the world can expect an increase in groups similar to Daesh in Iraq, and Boko Haram in CAR. The “domino effect” of conflict also cannot be ignored. The Lord’s Resistance Army, founded by Joseph Kony as a result of the guerilla war fought in Uganda, is now operational through CAR, DRC, and South Sudan, and even more people are desperate for protection as a result.

The realities of dealing with IDP fall on the host government — creating a further complication where people are forced to flee their homes as a direct result of actions by their government. Since most countries affected by IDP’s are also economically vulnerable, often politically weak, and have few coping mechanisms in place to deal with even the regular infrastructure needs of their populations, it falls to aid agencies to step in and help. With a growing disrespect and direct targeting of aid workers in some countries, the crisis becomes a self-sustaining loop of urgency.

The numbers vary, depending on the aid organization, the country, and which month one is looking at, and perhaps whether the number of refugees and Internally Displaced People is 24 million or 37 million doesn’t matter to anyone outside those organizations trying to deal with a problem that we simply cannot fathom. The statistics and logistics all comes down to one individual human at a time.

What we can do, perhaps, is to better understand the realities of displaced populations, for without that understanding we are left overwhelmed at the magnitude of the problem, and until governments realize how much of a strain it is on them and the world as a whole, protracted conflicts, a lack of attention to global climate change, and continued political wrangling, will continue to plague humankind in staggering numbers.

This essay was first published in MIPJ Volume: Refugees, IDPs and Statelessness.

Leigh Barrett is a freelance journalist, based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Visit Perspective Publications here.


Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy…

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs ( and Humanitas Media Publishing (

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs ( and Humanitas Media Publishing (

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store