Internally Displaced Persons: Guide to Legal Information Resources on the Web


According to the United Nations, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are "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, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border" (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement 1998, Introduction, para. 2).

Because the flight described in the definition is internal, national authorities are responsible for providing protection to people displaced in their own countries. However, over time the humanitarian community has come to recognize that IDPs "are often in need of special protection, not least because the government responsible for protecting them is sometimes unwilling or unable to do so, or may itself be the cause of displacement (Brun 2005, 3).

This recognition has resulted in the development of a legal framework based on human rights and humanitarian law norms to address protection issues, as well as the evolution of a complex network of mechanisms to provide assistance to millions of internally displaced around the world. The aim of this guide is to highlight information resources that can help readers learn more about this issue and its legal aspects.

1. Introductions to the Topic

The following resources provide helpful introductions to the problem of internal displacement and the plight of internally displaced persons:

2. Legal Instruments


Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons do not have a universal convention to call their own. Instead, a soft alternative in the form of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GP) was developed in 1998, with the aim of restating existing human rights and humanitarian law rather than trying to create new law. The Guiding Principles also sought to clarify grey areas and identify gaps in IDP protection.

To learn more about the legal basis for the Guiding Principles, their growing status as an accepted and authoritative international legal standard, and how they may be applied in practical terms, read:

The Annotations noted above demonstrate how the Guiding Principles "reflect and are consistent with international human rights law and international humanitarian law and to a large extent thus codify and make explicit guarantees protecting internally displaced persons that are inherent in these bodies of law." Relevant texts of human rights, humanitarian law, and other treaties can be accessed via these collections:

The Guiding Principles turned 20 in 2018! They have been translated into numerous languages, widely disseminated, and referenced by international, regional and national entities. Their 20th anniversary presented an opportunity to re-energize commitments to reduce internal displacement. To this end, a Plan of Action for Advancing Prevention, Protection and Solutions for Internally Displaced People 2018-2020 was launched by the international community "to step up efforts on four interrelated priorities: engaging IDPs in decision-making processes; promoting, developing and implementing national laws and policies; enhancing the quality of data and analysis; and addressing protracted displacement while seeking durable solutions." The anniversary also served as the impetus for greater reflection on and analysis of the impact of the Guiding Principles, the extent to which they have been incorporated into national frameworks, and an assessment of the current state of IDP research. 

For more information on these developments and access to relevant resources, explore:


In contrast to the international community's focus on soft law, the African Union (AU) adopted the first legally binding continental instrument focusing on IDPs, the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa ("Kampala Convention"), on 23 October 2009.  It entered into force on 6 December 2012. As of June 2020, there were 31 ratifications.

For a discussion of the Kampala Convention and its potential contribution to the development of international law in this area, see:

Additional discussion of regional standards can be found in the following:

3. National Legislation & Practices

In order for both the Guiding Principles and the Kampala Convention to be effective, their provisions must be implemented in the laws and policies of the countries where displacement occurs. The following resources were compiled to help national authorities meet their obligations towards internally displaced populations, including developing appropriate legal frameworks:

The texts of and information about national laws and policies relating to internal displacement can be located using these resources:

4. Institutional Arrangements for IDPs

The UN Special Rapporteur (formerly Representative of the Secretary-General) on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons is the principal international mechanism with a mandate to advocate for the rights of IDPs, both nationally and internationally. The current holder of this position, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, fulfills her mandate by promoting the Guiding Principles, undertaking country visits, hosting seminars and training courses, and engaging with government representatives, non-state actors, and civil society.

More information about the role and mandate of the Special Rapporteur, as well as texts of reports, can be found via the following:

An international humanitarian network has been established to provide assistance and protection to IDPs on the ground and in the field, with different organizations serving as lead agencies for different service sectors or "humanitarian clusters." However, because different agencies have different operational mandates relating to IDPs, three subsets within the IDP category effectively have been defined based on cause of flight: those displaced by conflict, by disasters, and by large-scale development projects.

To better understand some of the debates surrounding the IDP concept, begin with:

Conflict & Disaster IDPs

This table summarizes the humanitarian response mechanism in place to assist conflict- versus disaster-displaced persons:

Humanitarian Cluster
Lead Agency
UNICEF, Save the Children 
UNICEF, Save the Children 

*Serves as convenor rather than lead agency; coordinates response with partners.
**UNHCR is the lead agency at the global level for conflict- and disaster-induced emergencies; but note that "At country level, the humanitarian protection leadership role in natural disaster situations is currently decided on a case-by-case basis" by UNHCR, OHCHR, and UNICEF.

For more information about this division of labor for humanitarian response and the effectiveness of the international community's approach, see:

Development IDPs

Principle 6, 2(c) of the Guiding Principles states that "[t]he prohibition of arbitrary displacement includes displacement in cases of large-scale development projects, which are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests." Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been forcibly evicted from their homes and livelihoods to make way for dam construction, urban renewal, highways, power plants, mining, and other development projects. The World Bank and other regional development institutions have adopted operational policies on involuntary resettlement that call for avoiding or minimizing population displacement whenever possible, and requiring compensation and assistance for anyone that is displaced. In practice, however, resettled populations tend to become impoverished over time as a result of losing their land, jobs, and homes, among other factors.

As one can see from the table above, no column is included for the development-displaced. Despite their numbers and their dire situations, this population of IDPs tends to be overlooked in part because no international agency is mandated to provide assistance and protection to them. For more information about involuntary resettlement and where it occurs, discussions of the relevant legal framework for addressing development-induced displacement, including the role of the Guiding Principles, and proposals for enhancing the international response, see:

5. Additional IDP Resources

Key texts & useful publications:

Abebe, A. M. The Emerging Law of Forced Displacement in Africa: Development and Implementation of the Kampala Convention on Internal Displacement. New York: Routledge, 2016

Adeola, R. Development-induced Displacement and Human Rights in Africa: The Kampala Convention. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020

Adeola, R. The Internally Displaced Person in International Law.  Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2020

Cardona-Fox, G. Exile within Borders: A Global Look at Commitment to the International Regime to Protect Internally Displaced Persons. Leiden: Brill, 2018 (see also related dissertation)

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.  Disaster Displacement: A Global Review, 2008-2018. Geneva: IDMC, 2019

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.  Global Reports on Internal Displacement.  Geneva: IDMC, 2006-present

Internal Displacement Research Programme. Working Paper Series. London: Refugee Law Initiative, 2020- (includes 6 literature reviews on internal displacement, with the first providing a review of scholarship at the global level and the other five surveying the literature relating to internal displacement in different regions around the world)

Orchard, P. Protecting the Internally Displaced: Rhetoric and Reality. New York: Routledge, 2018

Weiss, T.G. & D.A. Korn. Internal Displacement: Conceptualization and Its Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2006


Course on Internal Displacement, IIHL (regularly-held face-to-face courses)

Internal Displacement, COE (online course)

Legal Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, PHAP (audio and video recordings)

Web sites & tools:

- Provides access to a Global Database on Internal Displacement, with statistical data on conflict- and disaster-displaced populations by country and assessments of displacement risk. Also produces a number of research studies and other publications on a range of IDP issues.

- Provides information on UNHCR's role in protecting and assisting IDPs, access to policy documents, and other resources.

- Provides access to legal, policy and background information documents in Refworld.

Brookings Internally Displaced Persons Archive, Bodleian Libraries
- A physical archive of papers from various IDP projects at the Brookings Institution covering 1983-2012.

*Update of paper originally published on LLRX.