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Forced displacement

Forced displacement
United Nations High Commissioner for refugees transit point near Kutupalong camp
© CICR

Under IHL, it is a war crime to forcibly displace civilians in both international and non-international armed conflicts. The only exception to this rule is where civilians are relocated on a temporary basis when required either for their own security or for imperative military reasons.

Forced displacement occurs when civilians are forced or obliged to leave their homes. They may flee to another part of the country or across international borders.

Sometimes forced displacement will occur as part of a deliberate plan by a party to the armed conflict, such as when one party deliberately moves civilians from their homes to another area. This is common in situations where “ethnic cleansing” occurs.

However, forced displacement should not be limited to this narrow category of acts. Rather, forced displacement typically occurs as a consequence of an armed conflict. This means that, while civilians may not be physically taken from one location to another, they leave their homes and flee elsewhere as a result of the armed conflict. This may occur when there is violence and fighting in the area in which they live, or when they have been threatened with the prospect of violence. The threat of violence need not be explicit; rather, the civilians may witness a public beating and decide to flee due to the risk of further public beatings. Moreover, forced displacement can occur due to one incident or due to the cumulative effect of multiple incidents.

Forced displacement may occur due to both a deliberate strategic move by one party to an armed conflict and due to the consequences of the armed conflict. Research by the ICRC into the conflict in Colombia, for example, demonstrates that the forced displacement of civilians during the conflict took place as part of a military strategy and as a by-product of violence and fighting.

What are the impacts of forced displacement?

Forced displacement causes people to abandon their homes, their jobs and their families. This has significant personal, social and economic consequences. Moreover, they are usually in a precarious situation and may have limited access to food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare and money. This also places pressure on state and non-state armed groups who are under an IHL obligation not to cause harm to civilians. It also has flow-on consequences for the civilians: their education or employment may be disrupted and it can entail significant effects on psychological wellbeing. Forced displacement presents a challenge not only for the civilians who have been displaced, but also for the civilians who live in the area to which the displaced civilians go. There may already be scarce resources in that area and a higher number of civilians will only increase pressure on supplies and allocation of resources. This may also result in resentment and tension between the various civilian populations. This increased vulnerability of the civilian population exacerbates the risk that already vulnerable civilians, such as women and children, may be exploited just to have access to basic necessities.

How may a business become involved in forced displacement?

Businesses operating in conflict zones may wish to access certain resources and/or establish transport routes. Businesses must be especially prudent when doing so because the displacement or relocation of civilians and landowners can amount to the war crime of forced displacement. Further, if government forces or non-government forces assist a business or act on behalf of a business to secure such access through the use of force, this is considered forced displacement.

The business could be liable for significant criminal and civil penalties if it commits forced displacement.

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International Humanitarian Law for Business

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