Displacement is an integral part of war and one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. When people are forced or compelled to leave their homes and communities, their physical and mental health often suffers. They may lose their independence, be or feel in danger, lack access to essential services and be at increased risk of health problems and violence. Displacement also affects host communities, especially if they are unprepared and lack the support they need.
This study shows that when it comes to displacement during armed conflict, international humanitarian law (IHL) must be an integral part of thinking about how to reduce and resolve displacement in armed conflict. It examines the intersection between IHL and displacement and provides insights into whether violations of IHL or respect for IHL have an enabling or mitigating effect on displacement. For more than a year, we’ve looked at travel patterns in a dozen different countries around the world. This study is based on existing literature, interviews with ICRC delegates and numerous documents from the ICRC archives. It capitalizes on the knowledge of armed conflict and displacement that the organization has gathered for decades.
First, the study reminds us that displacement is only one of many ways of coping with the effects of war, and that there are many reasons why people leave in such situations. Civilians fleeing conflict are not passive victims, but rather active agents.
Although they are forced by external circumstances to make a decision, they decide whether to stay or flee and where to go. Sometimes these decisions are made in haste, as people run for their lives in the midst of an attack. Others think long and hard with their loved ones to find out if staying would present too great a risk and if they have the means to escape.
Violence or the threat of violence is one of the most important considerations: evidence points to a correlation between waves of violence and displacement – displacement being a way for people to avoid actual or foreseeable danger and to find security elsewhere. Conflict is inherently violent. IHL is designed to limit the suffering caused by war by balancing considerations of humanity with military necessity. While acts of violence affecting civilians may – but not always – constitute violations of IHL, the report sets out numerous violations that directly or indirectly trigger displacement: violations of the principles and rules governing the conduct of hostilities, including distinction and precautions; illegal use of anti-personnel mines; direct attacks on civilian infrastructure and installations for the provision of basic services and the consequent disruption of these services; unlawful attacks on medical facilities, personnel and vehicles; unlawful denial of access to impartial humanitarian organizations; direct attacks against civilians; murder; hostage taking; torture; sexual violence, etc. These violations can also generate preventive displacements. Civilians have a long memory of violations of IHL and are aware of the impact of these violations on others. They could probably anticipate their occurrence or recurrence and choose preventative removal.
The study also shows that in certain circumstances, if communities obtain the humanitarian assistance and protection they need locally, departure may become less urgent. Conversely, when violations of IHL stifle humanitarian efforts or completely cut off the lifeline, civilians may be forced to seek help elsewhere.
The study then analyzes displacement patterns and provides insight into how violations of IHL can influence these patterns. Sometimes a single incident scares people away. In other cases, the accumulation of violations over time leads to displacement. The intensity and types of violations also have a profound influence on how long people remain displaced and the circumstances of their displacement.
The cumulative effect of violence resulting from the conduct of hostilities, whether in violation of IHL or not, tends to keep displaced people away from their homes for longer – and may force them to move multiple times. When violence is directed against specific civilians or groups of civilians, in violation of IHL, it is more likely to trigger protracted displacement, or make return impossible for these people, who will then have to try to find a durable solution by integrating into the community in the place of displacement or resettling elsewhere.
Finally, the report explains the role of IHL in protecting and assisting people wishing to return home once hostilities or other reasons for their displacement have ended. Better respect for IHL first mitigates the widespread damage and destruction of civilian objects caused by war. IHL also prohibits the use of certain weapons and requires parties to the conflict to clear, remove or destroy explosive remnants of war in territories under their control, after the cessation of hostilities and as soon as possible, in order to restore peace. safer environment for returnees. Thus, respect for IHL contributes to making return a real option for displaced persons. In addition, the protection that IHL affords to civilians can contribute to the safety of returnees.
Displacement is more than just a consequence of war, it can also be a deliberate strategy and a violation of IHL in itself. If we want to put an end to knowing violations, we need to look at what the law says and beyond what the law says, and examine why they are happening in the first place. Considering the intent behind the action is a way to better explore, reflect more deeply and, ultimately, effectively address the causes of IHL violations. Understanding the reasons for violations of IHL helps the ICRC to develop new lines of argument or action, in legal or other fields, which can be added to existing ones.
During phases of displacement, it is essential that parties to a conflict respect IHL – when people are at risk of being displaced, to reduce the conditions that might force them to flee in the first place; during the flight, so that they can move around safely and reach their destination without incident; during their stay in the place of displacement, and upon their return or resettlement to another part of the country, to contribute to their protection and support their efforts to rebuild their lives. All the evidence from external literature and the ICRC’s own archives tends to conclude that IHL contributes to protecting civilians from and during displacement.
As this study shows, greater respect for IHL has at least four key benefits:
• It is one of many ways to address the causes of displacement and prevent people from becoming displaced in the first place.
• It plays a decisive role in enabling humanitarian action in favor of people at risk of displacement.
• It helps to ensure that people are protected while on the move.
• It contributes to creating an environment conducive to a safe and dignified return.
Displacement is a matter of serious concern for States, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other actors everywhere. Many have pledged to do all they can to address both its root causes and its consequences.
The observations below, which build on the findings of this study, should help further this cause.