Freedom of Movement


By Sarah Meyer

We constantly hear about our "ever more global world"—a place where rapid transit, international commerce and the Internet have made borders more permeable. Less common are references to a crisis of movement that is boiling beneath the surface of this global revolution. Millions of people each year are moved forcefully and unjustly against their will. Their lives and communities are destroyed and the world is irrevocably changed. Francis Deng, former UN Secretary General on Internal Displacement and currently Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, captured the profound impact of this crisis when he said that the displaced "often find their family and communal ties shattered."[1]

Freedom of movement is in jeopardy. We see it happening as people move by force rather than will: the Burmese adrift at sea trying to seek asylum in Thailand; the thousands of Congolese living in camps because of the ongoing attacks by rebel groups; the village that is submerged when a new dam is built downstream. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote that displacement in the developing world remains "arguably the most significant humanitarian challenge that we face."[2]

The words "refugee," "asylum-seeker," "internally displaced person," "illegal alien" and "migrant"  are often used interchangeably—but behind them, are highly individual stories of suffering and numbers often too large to fathom. Clarifying the terminology helps us to understand the nuanced causes and consequences of this crisis of global movement.

Refugee: A person who seeks safety in another country to escape persecution because of race, religion, nationality, identity or political opinion.

There are approximately 15 million refugees today.[3] They have left behind homes, families and livelihoods to escape genocide, conflict, civil war, ethnic cleansing and forced recruitment by militias. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to protect and provide food, shelter, water and healthcare. Unfortunately, many refugees become dependent on this aid, as guaranteed freedoms like movement and access to work and education are often denied. Nearly 6 million people have been in exile for at least 5 years, with little hope of ever returning home.

Asylum Seeker: A person who seeks refuge in a Western, industrialized nation.

About 20 percent of refugees seek asylum. Unfortunately, many of them end up in limbo for years pending approval of their applications—at worst, in detention centers where they have no legal rights.

Internally Displaced Person, or IDP: Similar to a refugee, but one who remains within his or her own country's borders.

Under current international law, IDPs have far fewer protections than refugees. This disparity is clear in the camps in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which house IDPs from nearby towns as well as Rwandan refugees from the 1994 genocide. Because the IDPs are still under the political jurisdiction of their own country—which is often complicit in the violence—it is much more difficult for humanitarian agencies to intervene.

Until very recently, there had been no official policy on aid for IDPs and no agency charged with their assistance. The UN has tried to change that: its Commission on Human Rights published the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998. In 2005 it mandated that agencies like UNHCR and UNICEF provide services for the internally displaced, especially in conflict situations. But even so, the Principles aren't binding, and the mandate has not always translated to adequate action on the ground. According to Francis Deng, the protection and assistance of IDPs in many parts of the world is still "a neglected concern, or an unfulfilled aspiration, at best."[4] 

IDPs thus face tremendous risk of malnutrition, disease and violence. In northern Uganda, for example, the HIV/AIDS rate among the internally displaced is six times higher than that of the general population.[5]

Migrant Workers: There are approximately 30 million poor migrant workers today,[6] whose labor has a major impact on the Gross Domestic Product of developing countries.

Economic migration is often seen as a purely voluntary migration, but for most poor migrant workers it is a severely restricted and painful choice. The poor leave home because they cannot feed their families, afford healthcare or educate their children. They leave villages for cities and poor countries for richer, industrialized ones, often sending meager earnings home to support dependent families.

Urban centers balloon under the pressure of new immigrants, and are often unprepared for the greater demand for healthcare, sanitation, housing and social services. Migrants generally work in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs where they are subject to forced labor, exploitation, abuse and denial of their rights.

Natural Disasters: In any given year, as many as 50 million people are displaced due to tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding and natural disasters.[7]

The 2004 tsunami displaced 2 million people in Southeast Asia; Cyclone Nargis in 2008 displaced 800,000 people in Burma. Many believe that climate change is making catastrophic events more frequent; the Brookings Institution counted over 400 disasters in 2007 alone.

Ninety percent of natural disaster victims live in developing countries. Poor regions are hit hard by storms and earthquakes because they lack the infrastructure and planning for disaster management, and the poor often live in flimsy structures in unsafe areas like coastlines and unstable hillsides. When disasters strike, people are killed inside their crumbling homes and precarious edifices wash away. This phenomenon was visible in the United States when Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans' poor Lower Ninth Ward.

Human Trafficking: The recruitment, transportation and transfer of individuals by force or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.

"Slavery" often conjures images of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which ended in the early 19th century. Yet slavery is alive and well today, exploiting women, men and children across the globe. It is more commonly known today as "human trafficking," and includes prostitution, child labor and debt-bondage. Because trafficking is covert and illegal, it is hard to pin down the number of victims. The U.S. Department of State estimates that up to 820,000 people are taken illegally across international borders each year. The number of modern slaves spikes when we take into account the many millions of people trafficked inside countries. 

Development-Induced Displacement Over 10 million people every year are displaced by development.[8]

While a new dam or road may benefit the broader economy of a town, the poor, indigenous or ethnic minority groups who live on the land are rarely consulted or adequately compensated when they're forced to move. Some governments have guidelines for appropriate resettlement and compensation schemes, however these are rarely implemented. Most of the time, populations are simply dispossessed and left impoverished.

These crises are real and increasing. The challenge for the international community—humanitarian agencies, development NGOs and governments—is to respond with compassion and concerted action, to help the displaced return home, and to make sure that home is a secure, safe and economically viable place to stay.


[2] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre Annual Report, 2007.


[4] Global IDP Project, 2002: Foreword.

[5] State of the World's Refugees: Displacement in the New Millennium, UNHCR, 2006, p.155


[7] According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.