Twice Invisible: Accounting for Internally Displaced Children

Christelle Cazabat

IDMC “Hidden in Plain Sight” Thematic Series, November 2019


This report presents estimates of the number of children living in internal displacement due to conflict and violence. Estimates are calculated by applying the percentage of the national population in broad age groups, estimated by the UN Population Division’s World Population Prospects 2019.

Key statistics:

  • There were an estimated 17 million children (under age 18) internally displaced due to conflict or violence at the end of 2018. This figure underestimates the true number of internally displaced children since: data is only available for 53 countries; only displacement associated with conflict or violence is considered; and the estimate is calculated using the proportion of children in the overall national population while the proportion of children among the internally displaced population is often higher.
  • Approximately 5.2 million are under the age of five, 9.2 million are between 5 and 14, and 2.5 million are between the ages of 15 and 17.
  • There are approximately 8.2 million internally displaced children in Sub-Saharan Africa (48 percent of the global figure), 4.4 million in the Middle East and North Africa, 1.9 million in Central and South America, 1.6 million in South Asia, 0.7 million in Europe and Central Asia, and 0.3 million in East Asia and the Pacific.
  • The countries with the highest estimated number of internally displaced children are Syria, DRC, Colombia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Yemen and Ethiopia, each with more than a million children living in internal displacement.

In rare cases, when the right policies are in place, displaced children may experience an improvement in their living conditions, with increased access to healthcare or education (e.g. increased access to education among IDPs surveyed by IDMC in Ethiopia and Somalia, although at rates lower than among the host population). However, most of the literature on internally displaced children describes the negative impacts of displacement on their security, physical and mental health, and access to quality education. If these impacts are unaddressed, they can have repercussions that can last into adulthood and even after displacement. In particular:

  • Displaced children are at higher risk of abuse, neglect and violence, including forced recruitment into armed groups, forced/early marriage, child labor, and sexual harassment and violence.
  • Under nutrition and malnutrition are particularly threatening for children. Substandard shelters and overcrowding in displacement camps and urban settlements can lead to increased transmission of communicable diseases that are especially dangerous for children.
  • Psychological distress is common (e.g. among IDP children in southern Darfur, three out of four showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 38 per cent showed signs of depression), which can develop into chronic mental disorders if left untreated.
  • Internal displacement can affect a child’s education by reducing access to and equity in education, its quality and the way it is managed.

The author argues that internally displaced children are “twice invisible” in global and national data because IDPs of all ages are often unaccounted for, and because age-disaggregation of displacement data is limited, particularly data on IDPs.