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Refugees & Displacement

Read our key findings on refugees and displacement


Displacement is a common consequence of conflict that peace processes have to address, and yet can expose difficult choices that often go to the heart of the conflict. Failure to adequately and carefully deal with issues of displacement can put political settlements at risk of unravelling, and has a human cost that can last generations. Our research into displacement, peace agreements, and the experiences of displaced persons in contemporary conflicts, offers insights into how peace processes can respond to displacement.


Refugees and displacement (overview)

Peace processes and agreements vary in the extent to which they address displacement, from a brief mention in a peace agreement to a detailed protocol text. Some issues that are frequently include are:

  1. defining the scope of the agreement;
  2. affirming general principles of human rights and refugee law;
  3. guaranteed access to humanitarian agencies;
  4. issues related to return and repatriation;
  5. housing, land and property rights (including general principles and a specific right to restitution and providing for institutions to resolve land disputes);
  6. monitoring and enforcement mechanisms (McConnachie, 2017:14).

International obligations are different in relation to internally displaced people and refugees. The term ‘refugee’ has a specific legal meaning, as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) do not have the same international legal regime as refugees, because they remain in their country of origin and are assumed to be the responsibility of their own government. As IDPs are not otherwise protected through international law, a peace agreement represents a valuable opportunity to define their status and establish a binding commitment to their protection (McConnachie, 2017:14).

Many peace agreements include a general statement guaranteeing to respect the human rights of refugees and displaced persons. Particular rights may be identified, including the right to non-discrimination, the right to equality between men and women, the right to home and family life, the right to freedom of movement (McConnachie, 2017:15).

A peace agreement often provides for general monitoring and enforcement institutions to oversee the entire agreement. Sometimes additional provision is made for monitoring measures specific to displaced populations, such as humanitarian aid access or repatriation programmes. This can be particularly valuable where the population of displaced people is very large and/or where it is distributed across several countries (McConnachie, 2017:16).

Ultimately, implementation of a peace agreement depends on many factors, including the political will of the government and other actors as well as funding and the outcome of elections. To improve the prospects for implementing provisions specific to displaced populations, relevant considerations include:
• dedicated monitoring institutions to ensure implementation. Monitoring roles must be given to an appropriate actor: any entity with responsibility for overseeing implementation of services to displaced persons must be trusted by that population;
• legal reforms to incorporate an agreement’s provisions into national law, as the legal status of a peace agreement is not always clear; and
• ensuring that any promised services or benefits are accessible to displaced persons. This requires sensitivity to the continued fear and distrust that many refugees and IDPs have for government interventions, as well as awareness of practical barriers to accessing administrative support (McConnachie, 2017:16-17).

Land governance can be a central issue, as a cause of displacement, an impediment to return, and a risk of future displacement. Refugees and IDPs have a right to restitution of housing, land and property, and this should be recognised in peace processes and affirmed in any eventual peace agreement. New institutions may need to be created to decide land claims and allocate land where necessary (McConnachie, 2017:38).

There is a need to recognise the relationship between displacement and other aspects of peacebuilding, such as political autonomy for ethnic areas and land governance. It is necessary to ensure that displaced people themselves are central to the process of policy design, ideally through:
• Institutionalised mechanisms for dialogue
• Consultation and representation; and
• Securing continued funding to support refugees and IDPs with a continuing need of international protection (McConnachie, 2017:36-38).

PeaceRep research into the Syrian refugee crisis finds that refugee crises are intrinsically political. Although it took root in Syrian domestic politics, the conflict will only be settled with the involvement of all actors affected, including the Middle Eastern countries that hosted thousands of Syrian refugees. Conversely, the refugee situation is conditional upon the resolution of the Syrian crisis (Beaujouan and Rasheed, 2020:91).

It seems that the case of Syrian refugees will remain the cornerstone of future negotiations for post-conflict Syria. These negotiations necessarily involve the political and humanitarian cooperation between Syria and host countries. Yet, the return process might be hampered by the tense diplomatic relationships that exist between Syria and its neighbours, especially Lebanon (Beaujouan and Rasheed, 2020:91).

It is crucial that governments put out one common message to all audiences, domestic and international, to avoid further divisions in a tense context such as that created by the massive influx of refugees. While a humanitarian crisis challenges a country at all levels, it can also be seen as an opportunity for a government to bring its population together without infringing on the rights and interests of the refugees themselves.


Humanitarian responses to displacement

Humanitarian responses to a refugee crisis need to ensure that they do not adversely affect the development measures already in place in developing countries. Observers and practitioners must realize that short-term humanitarian interventions and development-oriented long-term policies have a complementary nature. Emergency and resilient policies must go together. (Beaujouan and Rasheed, 2020:90).

As part of PeaceRep research with Rohingya camp residents in Cox’s Bazar, respondents expressed distrust and noted a lack of open communication between themselves and humanitarian agencies working in the camps – both national and international agencies—as well as governmental authorities. Religious leaders expressed a desire that humanitarian agencies would take more advantage of their community links, and let them be a bridge between humanitarians and camp residents (Sutton, ed., 2020).

In Jordan and Lebanon, a lack of cooperation between the international and domestic levels of response to the Syrian refugee crisis is contributing to a lack of trust in worthy programmes and donor fatigue. There is a pressing need to unite the skills and efforts of the international, national and subnational humanitarian actors. The intervention of the international community should not be detrimental to the high potential of local stakeholders in terms of access, skills and knowledge (Beaujouan and Rasheed, 2020:90).

International civil society actors working on human rights and justice issues should make materials, workshops, and training available to refugees in a manner that supports them to compare Rohingya definitions and concepts with those applied in other contexts. At the same time, interlocutors, humanitarians and others aiming to work in solidarity with Rohingya should be diligent in understanding and validating Rohingya people’s own framing of these concepts (Sutton, 2021).


Displacement and Covid-19

Genuine community engagement and inclusive dialogue with displaced persons is essential to shape and inform sustainable and impactful pandemic responses and recovery (Lippman et. al, 2022).

Displaced persons should be included in all aspects of national responses to Covid-19, including vaccination campaigns, while also ensuring that engagement with such services will not lead to detention or refoulement (Lippman et. al, 2022).

Pandemic-related information should be developed and prepared with diverse groups in mind, to ensure that it is accessible and shared with displaced persons who have many different needs and perspectives (Lippman, 2022).

The socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has added to the burden on Syrian refugees and host communities alike, further damaging social cohesion and social trust (Beaujouan and Rasheed, 2020:93).

In Cox’s Bazar, genuine community engagement is essential if Rohingya perspectives are to inform the pandemic response and recovery. Young people have the potential to not only play a significant role as community researchers but also to serve as conduits and points of contact who can give clear information about Covid-19 to their fellow community members (Sutton and Doby, in Lippman, 2022).