The credibility problem of United Nations official statistics on Internally Displaced Persons by Gloria Nguya and Dirk-Jan Koch

Our research, notably Gloria Nguya’s PhD research, which she recently defended at the ISS, focused on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in urban settings in eastern DRC, particularly Bukavu and Goma. Bukavu and Goma are provincial capitals of the Kivus with about 25 years of instability. According to the latest United Nations figures there are exactly 25.619 IDPs in Bukavu[1]. These very precise figures have surprised us, because when we started our field research we noted that there was a large confusion about who should be counted as an IDP. During our research we found people who considered themselves IDPs, even though they were just regular migrants according to official definitions. Others who thought they weren’t IDPs were actually IDPs according to these official definitions. In this blog we single out one key crucial question to which there are so many contradicting responses: ‘When is somebody no longer an IDP?’.

During the field research, we encountered confusions on when somebody is no longer an IDP. Whereas some actors, such as local NGOs, argued that somebody couldn’t be labelled an IDP anymore if he or she could rent a house, others argued that one remains an IDP as long as one has specific unmet needs related to their displacement. Partly because of this problem of identifying IDPs in urban areas, we noticed that virtually all international organizations stopped targeting IDPs in their urban programming altogether. They would focus only on general vulnerability criteria, such as a housing situation. They omitted specific IDP needs related to their displacement status, such as trauma, access to documents or to remedy. This is worrying, as the plight of IDPs is an important element used by agencies to attract attention and funding.

Overall, the main inconsistency relates to methodologies: whereas in reality there are substantial differences in when an IDP is counted as such by humanitarian actors in the field (especially in urban areas), the UN data gloss over these differences. To arrive at the number of 25.619 IDPs the UN only included people that were displaced in 2016, 2017 and 2018. So, if you are a displaced person from 2015 or before, you are no longer counted in the statistics. This is too bad for you; however, the interesting thing is that as such this cut-off point goes against the definition that the UN itself supports. The Guiding Principles on internal displacement do not mention anything about a duration, quite to the contrary: an IDP remains an IDP as long as no durable solution has been achieved (global report on internal displacement 2019, p. 68). Well, for the IDPs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) these principles do not appear to hold: IDPs prior to 2016 in the DRC fall hence between stools.

We do not argue that the numbers provided by the UN are too high, or too low: we also do not know. In our research we noticed that to determine if somebody is an IDP according to the UN definition one needs to engage in conversations with the potential IDP in terms of the origin of the move, their needs or issues. The methodology that the UN has used, notably asking key informants, such as neighborhood leaders, instead of potential IDPs themselves, isn’t accurate enough according to us.

Luckily there is an interesting initiative from the United Nations Statistical Commission. They have launched an Expert Group on Refugee and IDP statistics in 2016, who finished their first report. Their sobering finding is that, while agreement on the IDP definition exists, ‘less agreement exists on when an IDP should stop being counted as displaced. Most states do not follow the definition and framework […] variations in state practice are widespread, making international comparability difficult.’ In 2020 they should have finished their guidelines (amongst other on how to measure ‘durable solutions’) and have started capacity building to roll them out (IMDC, 2019, p.56).  So, there is a hope that better IDP statistics will become available in the future if the United Nations and their backers follow through on their intentions.

To conclude, we feel that instead of creating some kind of fake sense of certainty, the United Nations may better admit that they only have rough guesses on the number of IDPs. We argue this because the confusion about IDP numbers does not only affect programming, but it also affects the relationship between the host government and the humanitarian actors, which has repercussions on the sustainability of humanitarian efforts on the ground. The DRC government even boycotted the DRC pledging conference in 2018 because the numbers weren’t correct, ‘the high numbers of displaced people are frightening investors, and the country is much more dependent on investment for development than development aid’ said the DR Congo’s Minister of Communications. By being more transparent about the challenges of IDP statistics, the UN has a clear argument about why more investments are needed in creating better displacement monitoring guidelines and mechanisms. Until these are in place, it is only better to have a moratorium on coming up with specific IDP numbers.

[1], p.2

About the authors:


Gloria Nguya has just completed her PhD in livelihoods strategies of Internally Displaced Persons in Urban Eastern DRC at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

pasfoto DJ Koch.jpg


Dirk-Jan Koch is professor by special appointment for International Trade and Development Cooperation at the Radboud Univeristy in Nijmegen and Chief Science Officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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