Invisible People Situating IDPs in Nigeria’s Policies and Economy

Nigeria needs durable solutions that address the many challenges its displaced populations face. With 2.6 million IDPs, addressing displacement in Nigeria is both a moral and economic obligation. 

As of 2019, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), there were 50.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world. In particular, Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has about 2.6 million people living in displacement. Several factors contribute to displacement in Nigeria. Since 2014, Boko Haram’s insurgency has led to considerable displacement in the North East. Additionally, farmer-herder tensions in the Middle Belt and North West have caused eruptions of criminal and communal violence that have caused people to flee their homes. Climate change also factors into this issue, with flooding triggering most of the 157,000 new displacements from natural disasters in 2019. These challenges are unending and create a continuous cycle of people being displaced, often more than once in their lifetime. Nigeria needs durable solutions that address the many challenges its displaced populations face.


Within IDP camps especially, displaced Nigerians face many difficulties. For instance, in the camps in Abuja, living conditions are extremely poor and housing structures are uninhabitable. Shelter is precarious due to congestion and damages from rain, and children face high risk of disease and infection. Education is also difficult to attain for displaced children whose parents cannot afford to enrol them in schools outside the settlements. These children are largely restricted to IDP schools that are not sufficiently equipped to deliver adequate and quality education. Additionally, some IDPs do not have access to quality healthcare facilities and proper medical aid. They only have access to first aid services from camp coordinators who have no medical training.

Finally, within IDP settlements, women are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence due to their increased vulnerability as displaced persons. Government officials who take advantage of their positions of power have sexually abused women in the camps. Internally displaced women and girls are exploited by camp leaders and policemen and these perpetrators are almost never held accountable. With these troubling conditions, there is sufficient incentive for IDPs to leave the settlements and move into cities in hopes for a better environment.


Cities provide a potential solution to protracted displacement. Living in cities presents new opportunities for displaced persons in terms of access to employment, labour markets, social networks and security that might not be available in settlements. However, living in cities also presents its own challenges. This is particularly true for cities that are ill-equipped to handle large population influxes due to strained resources. In Lagos, for instance, displaced people ‘often lack the necessary skills required to gain formal employment in cities, and therefore depend on the informal economy to make ends meet.’ Rebecca Enobong Roberts’s 2020 research on economic vulnerabilities among displaced people in Lagos has highlighted that gender dynamics also influence access to income-earning opportunities—with men having more access to start-up capital than women, giving men a higher chance of successfully starting businesses.

Barriers to improving livelihoods have been exacerbated by COVID-19 with the resulting lockdowns preventing displaced people from working. They also face greater health risks in congested cities where social distancing proves to be difficult. Additionally, as Roberts notes, displaced people in cities like Lagos depend on the informal economy for basic amenities such as water. Thus, the pandemic could mean drinking unclean water and becoming susceptible to water-borne diseases due to limited or reduced access to informal water vendors. IDPs in cities also face social discrimination and various forms of exclusion and intimidation such as religious discrimination and stigmatization of rape victims. This stigmatization has mental health ramifications worsening the plight of displaced persons who do not have access to mental health support.


A crucial step in providing durable solutions to displacement is ensuring that there is enough data and research on IDP populations in Nigeria. IDPs are usually excluded from national surveys and the Nigerian government should support policies and programs on displacement that prioritize data collection. This could be instrumental in closing these data gaps.

Secondly, humanitarian actors such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Rescue Committee, and the Nigeria Red Cross Society, should continue to have an open dialogue with IDPs on their preferences for local integration or return to their places of origin and provide the required support to them accordingly. This recognizes their position as active agents in their own lives. Engaging with IDPs in constructing specific ways to assist them is necessary for optimal and durable results.

Additionally, the government needs to develop protection strategies for displaced women whose vulnerabilities are compounded by their gender as current responses have not been gender-sensitive. For instance, Titilope Ajayi has explained how women and girls have limited access to justice for sexual violence they experience in IDP camps. Nigeria has not adequately protected displaced women from authority figures who abuse their power by sexually exploiting and raping such women. Furthermore, protection strategies should include accountability measures to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against displaced women to the full extent of the law.

Another overlooked challenge among IDPs is their mental health needs, especially where their displacement was triggered by traumatic events that render them in need of critical mental healthcare. Such trauma induces anxiety and substance abuse issues. The government and humanitarian actors should gear their efforts towards community-based mental health intervention.

Finally, the Nigerian government should invest in innovative ways to support IDPs to become self-reliant in terms of their livelihoods. For instance, the government could learn from countries like Brazil and Ecuador and develop a labour mobility project that situates IDPs in other parts of the country where they can be gainfully employed. The Brazil-Ecuador pilot project involves sending Colombian refugees in Ecuador over to Brazil where they are recognized as refugees by the Brazilian government and granted access to work coupled with temporary financial assistance from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Through partnering with local private actors, jobs were found in the service, construction, and textile sectors.

Employing this framework could be a breakthrough for Nigerian IDPs in ensuring their social and financial security. Additionally, when displaced people are given the agency to enhance their financial positions, they bring an increase of economic activity and advantages to cities. A study of the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya demonstrates this as there was an increase in economic activity due to new employment and price changes in agricultural markets that were favourable to local producers. Equipping the host community with skills training or business opportunities that can positively engage displaced people can even further these benefits. This solution should specifically target the needs of IDPs such as affordable sanitation items and food.

Ultimately, the plight of displaced persons in Nigeria needs to be brought to the fore of national policy discourse. According to IDMC, the average annual cost of internal displacement as a result of Boko Haram alone is $462 million. This economic impact is felt by the displaced people, the communities that host them, humanitarian organizations, and government agencies. Therefore, addressing displacement is a moral obligation and an economic obligation. Adopting the aforementioned recommendations will be a crucial step in improving the lives of displaced persons in Nigeria. It will also contribute to protecting women against gender-based violence in IDP camps. Necessary as they are, however, these solutions will not be easy and will require immediate action. A starting point would be to prioritize data collection as it would highlight specific IDP concerns that need urgent attention. To design effective solutions, we will need to bring the invisible people out of the shadows

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