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The impact of displacement on older people

Summary of report1

An older woman in Pakistan

A recent report shines the spotlight on the experience of displacement for older people in an effort to increase understanding of its particular characteristics. Entitled, The Neglected Generation, it draws primarily on contexts of internal displacement rather than refugee contexts. Nevertheless, the findings and policy recommendations are applicable to both refugees and IDPs.


The world is ageing at a staggering and unprecedented rate. By 2012, 12.5 per cent of the world’s population was over 60 – the UN definition of an older person. By 2050 there will be more people over 60 years than children, including significant numbers of people over 80 years, who constitute the fastest-growing age group. This translates into an average annual global increase of 29 million older people between 2010 and 2050, of whom 80 per cent will be in developing countries. Women will continue to live longer than men.

At the same time the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is increasing. At the end of 2011, the global number of people internally displaced by armed conflict, generalised violence or human rights violations stood at 26.4 million. Older persons form a significant proportion of groups of IDPs and refugees, as 35-65 per cent of them may be over 60 years.

A recent UN paper on the social situation, wellbeing and rights of older persons worldwide states: “it should be noted that while much data and analysis are available on population ageing, data and information about the lives and situation of older persons are strikingly lacking”. This lack of understanding and analysis of the concerns and rights of older persons is prevalent in all areas of development, but it is especially stark in humanitarian crises. To date, the attention of international institutions, national governments and those responding to displacement crises has been focused almost exclusively on children, rather than on supporting both of societies’ most dependent age groups.

The exclusion of older people in situations of displacement begins with registration to access assistance, assessments and monitoring systems. Data collection is often inadequate and the numbers of older persons in IDP camps, where data are more likely to be available than for IDPs living in host communities, often remains unknown even if data are collected for other age groups within the population.

When population data are disaggregated by sex and age, disaggregation often stops at age 49, reflecting a form of latent discrimination. Nutrition surveys commonly focus exclusively on children under five and HIV data usually stops at age 45, when reproductivity ceases. Even where age-disaggregated data are gathered, information on older people will not necessarily be captured.

Of the 50 countries reviewed by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) for its global IDP survey, only 11 had updated sexand age-disaggregated data. In only six out of the 50 countries had national policies make specific reference to older people, though three of the six countries had not gathered any information on older people. As a result, older people often only become visible when the return process is under way and their numbers only become apparent as they are left behind in camps many years later.

To date, practitioners and policy makers have devoted scant attention to the impact of displacement caused by human rights violations, conflict and natural hazards on older men and women.

Key issues and challenges for older IDPs

The report identifies actual concerns of older IDPs based on programme evidence from more than 10 country contexts and includes examples from different locations to inform practice. On this basis, the report identifies the following key issues and challenges for older IDPs:

Older persons form a significant proportion of IDP and refugee groups – sometimes as high as 30-65 per cent in contexts where there are high numbers of older people in the population and where younger or more able-bodied members of the IDP population have migrated elsewhere, returned home or integrated into local communities.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognises older IDPs as among the most at-risk individuals, characterising them as “persons with special needs”,1 alongside the chronically ill or disabled, and those who have experienced very high levels of trauma.

Each stage of the displacement cycle – the flight, the period of displacement and the process of return, resettlement or local integration – confronts an older IDP and service providers with specific challenges that need to be addressed. Prolonged displacement can have a particularly devastating impact on family ties and the community support available to older persons; it cannot be assumed that communities will always assist their old. In many cases, families have had to make painful choices leading to abandonment of older persons in order to survive.

HelpAge and IDMC research and data show that older people are consistently neglected in humanitarian operations and policy, that general programming does not integrate their needs and that they are rarely consulted within IDP operations. Sex- and age-disaggregated data are rarely collected, contributing to invisibility.

Older people have a range of skills, capacities and roles. They often contribute to household income, support household management through childcare and play a role as community leaders, decision makers or mediators. The degree to which these roles are recognised and supported during displacement has a significant impact on the challenges older people face and their ability to survive and recover.

Issues of limited mobility, visual and hearing impairment, and reduced muscle strength amplify the challenges of living in displacement camps and accessing services such as food, health care, and water and sanitation. Specific nutritional needs, chronic health disease and mental deficiencies may require further tailored assistance not usually included in packages provided to displaced populations.

Older women require specific attention - due to increased life expectancy, they are more numerous and more likely to be living alone. Protection risks are thus increased for women, who are not necessarily afforded equal status in society. In addition, in many IDP and refugee camps, older women take on the huge responsibility of supporting children whose parents have died or migrated elsewhere.

Some of the main challenges to protecting the rights of older displaced persons include obtaining access to vulnerable older persons who are left behind when more able-bodied flee, securing identification and documentation; ensuring land and housing rights; providing for basic needs; reuniting them with families and other individuals; providing appropriate health care and ensuring access to social support and income. Without an adequate analysis of their needs informing every stage of decision making during displacement, older persons will continue to be marginalised within programmes and policy intended to support the displaced. Crucially, they will continue to form the majority of IDPs and refugees left behind in camps or collective centres while younger people begin new lives for themselves. This is a fundamental breach of older people’s basic human rights.

The report makes a number of recommendations targeted at actors with specific protection responsibilities, including national governments, the UN, and humanitarian and development partners working in displacement contexts.


In order that older IDPs access their rights and entitlements and in recognition of their growing global numbers, protection actors should:

Show footnotes

1HelpAge International and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2012). The Neglected Generation – the impact of displacement on older people.

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Reference this page

The impact of displacement on older people. Field Exchange 44, December 2012. p17.



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