Return to site

What does it mean to be an Internally Displaced Person, or to be Stateless?

by Nura Alawia

What does it mean to be an Internally Displaced Person (IDP)?

Internal Displaced Person (hereinafter referred to as IDP) have, for long been subject to atrocities and have become collateral damage in conflict areas. A majority of IDPs are civilians who are incapable of protecting themselves and rely on the State for protection. When the State is in political disruption, they are the first to be affected. Understanding their position is increasingly important and ultimately led to the passing of the UN guiding principles on internal displacement in 1998.

Internal displacement is the coerced movement of persons within their country. The UN guiding principles on internal displacement define internally displaced persons as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence; the violence of human rights or natural or human-made disaster, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border. The involuntary nature of their departure and the fact that they remain in their own country are the two main elements determining who is an internally displaced person. War has always been one of the main reasons people are forced to abandon their homes. They cause massive displacements in the population.

No universal instrument specifically addressed the plight of IDPs until 1998, when the UN general assembly and the UN commission on human rights took note of the guiding principles on internal displacement. While these guiding principles do not constitute a binding instrument, they have received large support from the international community. The guidelines provide direction to the international community, individual nations faced with the problem of internal displacement, and all other intergovernmental and non-governmental groups. The general principles as created by the UN guidelines consists of 30 principles that are comprehensive in scope and apply to all phases of displacement: protection from displacement, protection during displacement, and protection after displacement. Nonetheless, the focus of this article is on those who have been displaced by conflict and violence, thus, just two principles will be defined. (A) Internally displaced persons are entitled to equal rights and equal obligations as any other persons of the state. Neither a state nor an organization is permitted to discriminate against or withhold protection from IDPs on the basis of their race, religion, political affiliation, age, sex, ethnic origin, or nationality. (B) The right to seek asylum is provided to internally displaced persons who cannot be prevented from seeking refuge in other countries. The country of origin cannot restrict them from fleeing to neighboring countries and the host countries cannot use the guiding principles as justification for denying refuge to the IDPs.

Internally Displaced Persons can be more vulnerable, especially with regards to poor housing; lack of access to food, water, and sanitation; exhaustion; loss of protective structures of families and communities; language barriers; and violence which can force the displacement in the first place. According to UNHCR, around 65 million people around the world have been displaced by armed conflict or human rights violations. Some 21 million are refugees – namely people who have crossed an international frontier to seek safety in another state. Whereas twice that number, some 42 million, are internally displaced persons (IDPs), those who have also been uprooted by violence or persecution, but who remain within the boundaries of their own state. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), continued instability and obstacles to returning home once a conflict is over mean that 11 million people were living in internal displacement in the Middle East and North Africa alone.

The Syrian conflict, now almost in its tenth year, triggered 1.8 million new internal displacements in 2019 alone, mostly the result of military offensives in the north-east and north-west of the country. Around 6.5 million people were living in internal displacement as of the end of 2019. Another 5.6 million people have fled the country, meaning that more than half of its pre-war population has been displaced. The most intense offensives of 2019 were those in the north-western governorate of Idlib and north-eastern areas of the country bordering Turkey. Each triggered the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had already been displaced a number of times. Women and children, who make up more than three-quarters of Idlib’s population, were particularly affected.

What does it mean to be a stateless person?

A stateless person is someone defined by the fact that they have no real rights as they belong to no state or government to uphold them. Various conventions have attempted to improve their situation but without citizenship, most people cannot vote, go to school, find a job, see a doctor, get married, or access any other services that require an ID. They also see high rates of exploitation and violence. Stateless people are not citizens of a country, they have no nationality, and often, they lack basic human rights.

The current refugee crisis in Syria has created thousands of stateless children. In the mainstream narrative, it is common to think nationality as something you acquire by being born in a country, or something people can voluntarily apply for. Yet, the concept of nationality and citizenship being conveyed upon birth is known as “jus soli” and is not applicable everywhere. There is another concept called “jus sanguinis” which determines your nationality based on the parents regardless of where a person is born. The current Syrian stateless crisis is the result of “jus sanguinis” in Syrian law. Indeed, only the father is allowed to designate nationality and with family being ripped apart, there are many Syrian children without fathers who are now stateless.

The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, says that children born stateless must be allowed nationality on the territory where they are born. Unfortunately, Syria and many other countries are not part of this convention. For decades, the UN has worked to end statelessness, and by 2024 its hope is to eradicate the legal blocks and circumstances causing it. But for the millions left without a homeland, the legal limbo they are trapped in providing them nearly no opportunities to get out. Ultimately, many stateless people happen to be refugees and no home country to return to.

How can we support IDPs and stateless people?

To conclude the article, there is an ultimate demand. Namely, what, we, as persons who can live with peacefulness given our recognized and established status quo, can effectively do? First of all, there should be an accessible narrative that comprehensively includes the difficulties that IDPs and stateless people experience in everyday life; there should be more support with regards to the necessary services that these ‘categories’ of people need. For instance, access to education. IDPs and stateless people, who do not find security in their current living place, or do not have the possibility to gain any sort of education, are dismissed from the learning process. Education makes us capable of interpreting things, among other things. It is not just about lessons in textbooks. It is about the lessons of life. It is also a way of escaping, given the external obstacles, from the surroundings, and trying to conduct a normal life by learning things that are useful for their future.


One example of supporting education to people of different ages is Paper Airplanes, whose goal is trying not to leave any child or adult left behind. With a wide range of programs, Paper Airplanes, in 2019, provided education assistance to 2,411 conflict-affected individuals around Europe and the Middle East. On the other hand, there should be a reinforcement of support by donors (being states, intergovernmental organizations, or individuals) in order to supply and contribute to the education accessibility of IDPs and stateless persons.

About the author: Nura Alawia

My name is Nura Alawia and I'm a big fan of travel. The best part of traveling is getting to know people with different experiences, cultures, and traditions (including food, of course). For my undergraduate, I chose to study Arabic while for my master I opted for a more specific area which is Middle Eastern politics. At the moment I am an intern at the PA and I cannot be happier considering the objectives of the organization and given the people involved in it whose inspiration, friendship, and high motivation are fantastic.

The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!