World leaders are sidelining an extremely important issue at the UN General Assembly, and it affects the lives of millions

Amanda Khozi Mukwashi

In 2005, my stepfather in Zambia, David Busiku Mainza contributed to a pamphlet on the Tonga people, some 57,000 of whom were resettled in 1957 and 1958 from the Zambezi Valley after their villages were flooded because of rising waters during the construction of the Kariba dam. The vivid memories he shared with the little book’s author, Elisabeth Thomson, the then curator of the BaTonga Museum in Binga, Zimbabwe, demonstrate the damaging repercussions of such upheaval over generations.

Decades later, as I survey the priorities of the international community as chief executive of Christian Aid, I note with despair that there is one glaring omission on the agenda for the formal discussions as representatives from world governments gather at the UN General Assembly in New York: internal displacement.

Yet it would take more than a year to read the names, if we knew them, of the more than 65 million people who are currently forcibly displaced due to conflict or violence, at least 40 million of whom remain in their countries of origin.

And so, 20 years on from the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, it is time for world leaders to stand in solidarity with those who have fled their homes but not crossed borders. Many of them are the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities – including women, children, elderly and disabled people – and yet, so often, they receive none of the support and protection to which refugees are entitled.

Displaced on average for 15 years, often repeatedly, most exist without access to basic services such as health and education, and are often subjected to abuse and torture.

Meanwhile, climate change is a massive factor. Since 2009, it is estimated that one person has been displaced every second by weather disasters: an average of 26 million people every year. This trend is likely to intensify in the immediate future as rural areas struggle to cope with warmer weather and more erratic rainfall, not to mention disasters such as Typhoon Mangkhut which has killed dozens and displaced many more in the Philippines and China.

The latest figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) show that millions of individuals have become displaced inside their own country since January. There were 5.2 million new internal displacements associated with conflict and violence in the first half of 2018. In Ethiopia, 1.4 million new internal displacements have already been recorded. Somalia and South Sudan are also among the 10 worst affected countries for new displacement linked to conflict and violence.

At the same time, East Africa accounts for five of the most significant disaster events between January and June, with flooding in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda, and drought in Somalia displacing more than a million people in total. In addition, 3.3 million displacements associated with disasters were recorded in 110 countries and territories. In May and June, monsoon flooding in India caused the most significant displacement, affecting over 370,000 people. Unprecedented flooding continued in July and August, with government reports indicating that over 1.4 million were displaced to relief camps in Kerala alone. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the highest number of new displacements related to conflict, there are currently more than two million people internally displaced. More than 80 per cent of aid for those who are displaced is directed into camps, but 73 per cent of internally displaced people live outside them, meaning they miss out on the help they need.

Despite these urgent disasters, the global compacts on refugees and migration, to be signed this year, regrettably provide scant attention to these people. If we are to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and make sure that we do indeed “leave no one behind”, then the international community must ensure that internally displaced people receive much needed protection and support.

Politicians with consciences must now work with UN agencies, international non-governmental organisations, civil society and faith communities to prevent displacement in the first place, to protect those who are displaced, and to work with people forced to flee to find durable solutions.

“lf fields could be carried, we would have carried them”, says one contributor to the Tonga pamphlet, talking of the fertile lands by the river banks that had to be abandoned. Others who were interviewed speak of the deep sense of loss they felt at leaving behind the shrines and graves of their ancestors. And yet there is an overriding hope for the future in the booklet.

In response to that universal need for hope, Christian Aid calls for the UN and countries to adopt a “FAIR” deal: “funded” – with long term commitments; “ambitious” – beyond commitments made so far at summits; “inclusive” – all people on the move need to be protected, especially people who are stateless and people who have been trafficked; and “respectful” of international law – enshrined within the UN’s guiding principles on how to help internally displaced people from 1998.

Now, I and more than 50 faith leaders, who have signed a letter coordinated by Christian Aid, want to see the international community joining the GP20 Plan of Action to prevent further forcible displacement, and strengthen the protection of those who are displaced. With faith leaders leading the way on this moral question, I call on world leaders urgently to consider their commitments to ensure that, truly, nobody is left behind.

Amanda Khozi Mukwashi is the CEO of Christian Aid