There are diverse computations of the actual number of internally displaced people in the world today. However, there is a broad international consensus that the global population of internally displaced people stands somewhere in the region of 25 to 30 million: up to 16 million in Africa, six or seven million in Asia, around five million in Europe16 and up to three million in the Americas.17
It is not easy to ascertain the number and location of the world’s internally displaced people. This is attributable not only to the problems in defining ‘internally displaced persons’, but also because of several institutional, political and operational obstacles. Unlike the collection of refugee statistics, a task undertaken by UNHCR, no single UN agency has assumed responsibility for the collection of figures on internally displaced populations.
The question of internal displacement is also a politically sensitive one for sovereign states. Governments are often unwilling to admit to the presence of such populations on their territory, since they are indicative of the state’s failure to protect its citizens. Further, internally displaced people may themselves be reluctant to report to or register with the local authorities.18
Finally, there are some very obvious obstacles to the collection of data in areas affected by ongoing armed conflicts. In the combat zones of Liberia, Somalia and Zaire, for example, the international presence is minimal or non-existent, making it extremely difficult even to provide rough estimates of the number of people who have been displaced. Thus in Sierra Leone, the statistics have been based on food aid beneficiary lists, and probably reflect only a fraction of the displaced population. In other situations, such as Chechnya, internally displaced people are highly mobile, again making it very difficult to determine their exact numbers at any moment in time.
Regardless of the figure used, the magnitude of the number becomes even more apparent when it is contrasted with the smaller figure of 17 million refugees worldwide. The number of internally displaced persons is still more unsettling given that refugees are covered by a fairly extensive system of international protection,19 whereas internally displaced persons have no such system of protection.