Written by Sabina Escobar Páez

Keywords: Internally Displaced People (IDPs), natural disasters, forced mobility dynamics, human rights, vulnerability, violence.


In December 2011, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees, António Guterres (former UN High Commissioner for Refugees) stated that “a growing number of people [were being] uprooted by natural disasters […], with climate change […] found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. Most of the people affected will remain in their own countries. They will be internally displaced” (Guterres, 2011). In this regard, borders are not always required to be crossed in order to experience the consequences of forced movement. Internally displaced people (IDPs) fall into the dynamics of forced displacement and, as a consequence, they are among the most vulnerable communities in the world (UNHCR, n.d.). In fact, they constitute the largest group of migrants moving forcibly. At the end of 2020, there were 55 million IDPs worldwide, the main factors for displacement being conflict and violence (48 million IDPs) as well as natural disasters (7 million IDPs) (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2020). According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, IDPs flee their homes “to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters” (UN Human Rights, n.d.). However, IDPs do not cross an internationally recognized border.

But what makes IDPs the most vulnerable migrant community? Different factors converge in the positioning of IDPs at the crossroads of vulnerability and violence. While IDPs are migrants, they differ from refugees as they remain within the borders of their country and because they have not been granted special status under international law. Although legislative progress has been made at the regional and global level since the 2000s, the implementation degree remains inadequate without the figure of a central international actor in charge of addressing IDPs’ concerns (Koch, 2020). If we consider the European Union as a normative hub for upholding human rights, its engagement, and development in terms of policies toward the protection of IDPs is still very limited. In my view, this could be justified by the fact that internal displacement is still conceived as a national issue, accompanied by the lack of political will by national decision-makers. In addition, the phenomenon is viewed as a short-term one, in which migrants will return to their homes as soon as the problem is solved. However, this idea is biased. As a consequence, their particular situation is not accompanied by specific rights, and therefore the term IDP becomes “merely descriptive” (UNHCR, n.d). At the same time, IDPs rely on their government’s protection, although the latter might constitute the reason to flee from persecution and violence (UN Human Rights, n.d.). Non-binding instruments exist such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (1998) or the ICGLR Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons (2006). Both mechanisms are useful in that they include those rights and guarantees that are essential to the protection of IDPs and also contain suggestions on how states can behave in order to achieve durable solutions. While not imposing measures, they definitely serve as a guide to assist and protect this community.  

It is however important to mention that not all individuals within the IDP community are equally exposed to human rights violations. Traditional roles and gender inequality, accompanied by power relations deriving from the latter, particularly influence migration discrimination towards women. In fact, throughout their journey, IDP women constantly face risks and vulnerabilities, including assaults, verbal abuses, irregular legal conditions, deficient camps, and diseases. Those aspects are closely linked to their potential situation of isolation, discrimination, and exclusion (Herrera Sánchez, 2013).

This article will address the case study of Haitian IDPs, a context in which natural disasters and conflict go hand in hand. First, it will address the dynamics of natural disasters and forced movement in Haiti, with a particular focus on women. Secondly, the article will discuss the new challenges for Haitian IDPs’ human rights. Finally, the role of the EU in the protection of IDPs will be assessed.

Natural disasters and dynamics of forced displacement in Haiti

Our natural environment has been experiencing a transition during the last decades due to climate change. This shift consists of an increase in “the duration and frequency of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and storm surges” (Bronen, 2011, p.359). This transition has severely impacted many communities and Haiti does not escape from these dynamics. In 2020, the total number of IDPs in Haiti linked to natural disasters was more than four times the number of IDPs fleeing their homes because of conflict and violence (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2020). The 2010 earthquake in Haiti left the country in deep distress and, as of today, the consequences are still being suffered by its population (Crisis Group, 2021). Government officials estimated that 1,3 million people were displaced, their situation accompanied by hunger and food insecurity (Puttkamer et al., 2014). In the aftermath of the earthquake, the human rights of all Haitians were at stake, since the capacity of the state was already considered to have limits (Abebe, 2011). In this regard, although there is a clear link between displacement on one side and climate change and human rights violations on the other side, the lack of political capabilities of the Haitian government is an underlying issue in this particular context. In fact, the story of Haiti is the story of crisis, insecurity, violence, resistance, and instability, in which a growing atmosphere of distrust and fear is constantly being constructed (Buss, 2008).  

Nonetheless, women and children constitute the majority of IDPs, whose basic rights have a higher risk of being abused (UN Human Rights, n.d.). IDP women in Haiti have been strongly impacted both in a visible and invisible way, through direct and structural violence (Galtung, 1969), mostly reflected in their everyday life in IDP camps. There, girls and women are not able to meet their basic needs. Among the identified ones, there is “a lack of access to clean water, food, health care, adequate housing, and income-generating opportunities” (Horton, 2012, p.301). Not only are their living conditions precarious, but they constantly face sexual and gender-based violence. In addition, “racialised and class-based representations of displaced women have undermined their ability to make demands and hold the Haitian government and donor sectors accountable” (Horton, 2012, p.297), therefore proving the embedded structural violence. As a consequence, the responses to women’s post-disaster needs are ineffective. In regards to disaster relief, there is a lack of empowerment and collective mobilization of women. In addition, the implementation of gender-sensitive policies and programmes by states and NGOs is still considered a top-down policy issue. As a result, it makes it more difficult for IDP women to engage in local and national-level advocacy.

Aid and food distribution equally constitute a major obstacle for women. In camps where aid distribution is controlled by men, “women have been forced to negotiate sexual favours to meet basic needs and obtain access to supplies” (Horton, 2012, p.302). Also, NGOs’ top-down methods to distribute aid and food have contributed to increasing women’s vulnerability in the camps, making possible “all manner of abuse and coercion” (Schuller, 2010, p.26). In fact, in some camps women have their ration cards robbed or they are propositioned for sex in order for them to get the latter. Another added difficulty for IDPs in their lives in the camps in Haiti is the stigmatization of illnesses, mainly AIDS/HIV, accompanied by the compromise of their care continuity. In fact, “HIV/AIDS is an important public health problem in Haiti, and the earthquake threatened to undercut many of Haiti’s successes in HIV prevention, care, and treatment” (Puttkamer et al., 2014, p.2). Since the 2010 earthquake, the retention of patients participating in HIV antiretroviral therapy (ART) has constituted an increasing concern. In this particular context, a remarkable number of HIV patients interrupted their ART “after losing their personal medication supplies or their connections to health facilities with records about their medication regimens. ART patients living in displaced person camps faced lack of privacy, stigma, transportation challenges, and other notable stressors which compromised their continuity of care” (Puttkamer et al., 2014, p.2).

However, despite the 2010 earthquake consequences still present today, new challenges are arising for IDPs in Haiti.

New challenges for Haitian IDPs’ human rights

In March 2020, a new earthquake of magnitude 7,2 hit the country. It destroyed 52 000 houses, while 77 000 were severely damaged (International Organization for Migration, 2021b). The impacts of this new disaster got intertwined with the ones of the 2010 episode, relapsing into the previous human rights dire situation and reproducing similar dynamics of forced movement. This new challenge has been accompanied by an increase in violence. In fact, “even before the earthquake struck, thousands of people had already been displaced by gang violence” (International Organization for Migration, 2021a). It is fair to point out that, although Haiti has never undergone war since its independence, it has often been qualified as a post-conflict country (Pace and Luzincourt, 2009). In July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated (Crisis Group, 2021) and insurgent violent groups seem to be attempting at people’s fundamental rights and democratic structures (Haitian Delegation, 2021). As a consequence, hundreds of families have been displaced in Haiti by the alarming increase in violence, specifically in the capital, Port-au-Prince (International Organization for Migration, 2022).

In addition to the noticeable increase of violence within the Haitian society mostly due to gangs, the Covid-19 pandemic has equally brought devastating consequences for IDPs in Haiti, mainly because of the health risks and the socio-economic impacts that it has entailed (International Organization for Migration, 2022). At the same time, the pandemic has had a negative effect on the delivery of aid, as it has been added to the already fragile security situation (International Organization for Migration, 2022). Covid-19 being at the front today, stigmatization and targeted violence against those perceived as infected is leading to low numbers of cases being reported, exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities within the most marginalized” (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, deportation flights from the United States have taken place. The US has been deporting Haitian migrants and asylum seekers back to Haiti under the Title 42 expulsion policy. The latter has allowed the effective closure of US borders to almost all asylum seekers for allegedly health reasons and national security. In this regard, when Covid-19 reached the US, officials from the Trump administration pressured health authorities in order to elude the US and international law that protects refugees through the expulsion of migrants (Human Rights Watch, 2021). However, this has contributed to the faster spreading of the disease. In fact, “ongoing deportations present a constant risk of new outbreaks, and the need to quarantine and care for arrivals further strains thin resources” (Jozef & Johnston, 2021, p.67). At the same time, those deportations contribute to the dynamics of the IDPs movement, again putting their human rights at risk. More concretely, “Haiti is experiencing a dire security situation, including loss of government control over strategic areas to the hands of dangerous armed gangs, widely believed to be financed by politicians and to have police officers on their payroll. Violence has worsened an already severe humanitarian crisis” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Although no international organization or agency “has been designated as the global lead on protection and assistance of internally displaced persons” (UN Human Rights, n.d.), this does not mean institutions are free from responsibility toward IDPs. 

The next section will discuss the role of the EU in the protection of this community’s human rights.

The role of the EU in the protection of IDPs

Five years after the 2010 earthquake, the housing situation for Haitians remained a challenge both for the international community and the Haitian government. It is for this reason that, in 2015, Amnesty International wrote a letter to Federica Mogherini (at the time, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission), asking for action by the EU and its member states “to assist the Haitian authorities to ensure that post-earthquake reconstruction respects and fulfills the human rights of the Haitian population, including the right to adequate housing” (Amnesty International, 2015). After reminding that forced evictions constitute an additional burden to IDPs already traumatized by the earthquake effects, Amnesty asked the EU to ensure that the cooperation projects the union conducted in Haiti did not impact the local population’s human rights in a negative way.

But can the EU ensure the protection of IDPs in Haiti when internal forced displacement is also an issue on European soil? Europe does not escape from forced mobility dynamics. In fact, it was by the end of 2017 that it had almost 4 million IDPs, particularly in Ukraine, Cyprus, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others. One of the problems at the heart of those dynamics is that European countries used to portray the context and conditions leading to the displacement had an expiration date. However, it has been witnessed that IDPs’ journey is rather long-term, therefore lacking durable solutions. Another issue has to do with regarding the options of local integration and settlement as the first ones when they should be the last resort. In fact, IDPs should have the right to return to their original places, but this is rarely the case, at least in the short term, the condition of IDPs becomes permanent (Council of Europe, 2018).

Among the best practices having been discussed, the most prominent one is the idea of putting the rights, needs, and interests of IDPs at the centre of the policies. As a consequence, decision-making processes require the active participation of this community to understand and reach their real necessities, always prioritizing respect for their human rights. Existing initiatives have already come forward at the national level, Georgia constituting a good example. In 2007, the Georgian State Strategy for IDPs was established and, in 2014, legislation to strengthen IDPs’ protection entered into force. As a continuation of those developments, the government has pursued a shift in IDPs’ assistance, from a status focus to a need focus (Council of Europe, 2018).

At the institutional level, the EU is equally proving its involvement in IDPs’ protection. The Commission and the European External Action Service adopted the Communication “Lives in Dignity: from Aid-dependence to Self-reliance. Forced Displacement and Development” in order to promote a development-led approach to forced displacement. In addition, the Commission “gave more than €1.064 million or some 72% of its annual humanitarian aid budget in the financial year 2015 to projects helping refugees and IDPs” (European Commission, 2016). The institution has equally shown its support by cooperating with migration-focused organizations, mainly the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). Despite the existence of those initiatives, the EU’s involvement in the protection of IDPs still has a long way to go. Both in Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina, strategies have been adopted to deal with IDPs’ human rights. Nevertheless, their implementation has faced several obstacles due to a lack of financial resources (Council of Europe, 2018).


This article has addressed the complex situation of IDPs in the context of natural disasters, through the case study of Haiti. After addressing the legal and human rights implications related to the IDP community, the article has sought to analyse forced movement dynamics in Haiti, with a particular focus on women. It has equally delved into further challenges that the current context of the pandemic is adding to the protection of IDPs’ human rights. Finally, the role of the EU within this protection has been assessed. While IDPs constitute a migrant community, their situation is more likely to fall under a legal limbo because of the lack of international status or protection they are lacking. In this regard, their human rights risk being violated all along their journey. In addition to the nature of their forced displacement, the context at the origin of their movement is just an added burden to their difficulties, as in the case of natural disasters. Women seem to be the most affected ones since their vulnerability is at the crossroads between violence and movement. But Haiti’s complex situation equally resides in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic, new earthquakes, and the rise of gang violence, which contribute to perpetuating the previous dynamic, accentuating the impacts of IDPs’ human rights. Finally, although the EU is participating in initiatives to improve IDPs’ protection, it still has a long way to go. All in all, the situation of IDPs is unlikely to change if governments and institutions continue to conceive the mobility of IDPs as a short-term one instead of trying to tackle the root causes of the forced mobility dynamics from the very beginning. 


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