NAIROBI, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - When violence broke out in Kenya in 2008 after a disputed presidential poll, 71-year-old Magdalene Njeri's hometown of Kericho in Rift Valley Province was one of the areas most affected by the violence; while others ran for safety, Njeri, too frail to flee, came under attack by rampaging youths.
"I saw them coming to my home… They were chanting… and I saw some people run, but I just walked because I couldn't run," she told IRIN. "They caught up with me and started caning me. I just lay there and they thought I was dead."
When she finally found herself in a temporary camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), frequent illness and harsh weather conditions made her stay a difficult one.
"I used to fall sick more often in the camp because of the cold. I saw many old people like me succumb and I knew I would die too," she added. "But I am lucky because somebody found me a new home here in Nyumba ya Wazee [a home for older people run by the Catholic Church]."
Njeri has not been back to her home since 2008, and has little contact with her family.
Weaker than the rest
Experts say older people are affected more severely than the rest of the population during displacement. "People who have energy can resist or run or take away belongings. An old person doesn't have the energy to do all this. So in cases of forced evictions, for instance, they lose a home and lose belongings and also a critical social network," Protus Waringa, a Kenyan human rights law expert, told IRIN.
"Even if they found themselves in camps, they miss out on food rations or shelter provisions because of immobility to get to where such help is being offered. If they do get a little, they share it with those under their care, normally children," he added. "Rather than be seen as people who need help, many old people find themselves turned into caregivers."
Globally, an estimated 26.4 million people were displaced by armed conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations at the end of 2011, according to a 2011 overview by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC); the overview noted that there were huge gaps in the data available on older IDPs, with just six out of 50 countries making specific reference to older persons in their data on IDPs.
"In Burundi, information was gathered on groups at risk, including older people. Many older IDPs there, were no longer able to walk for several hours to their places of origin to tend their fields and livestock. This left older people unable to produce food for themselves or to sell, further limiting their prospects of overcoming their displacement," the authors reported. "In most countries, failure to identify such threats faced by diverse members of communities not only resulted in IDPs' needs going unaddressed, but it often led to actions that inadvertently increased the risks they faced and further marginalized them."
According to a recent report by NGO HelpAge and IDMC, conflicts and natural disasters often pose agonizing dilemmas for the elderly.
"Older people who stay behind when others leave may be subject to violence, intimidation or secondary impacts of natural hazards, such as aftershocks or rising flood waters," and often lose essential assistance and support mechanisms, the authors said. However, if they do decide to flee, risks include "the possibility of being separated from their family and thus ending up in near-complete isolation".
"In Darfur in 2004, for example, when huge numbers of people fled across large distances to urban centres, numerous older people reportedly arrived in IDP camps alone, having been separated from their families during the journey, or simply having stopped or been abandoned along the route due to physical exhaustion," the authors said.
The authors of the study recommended, among other things, provision of social spaces, psychosocial and legal support and access to health services to help old persons deal cope with displacement.
An earlier HelpAge study found that while 11 percent of the world's population is aged 60 or over, less than 1 percent of humanitarian aid targets this group.
Jo Wells, a humanitarian policy manager at HelpAge International and author of the report, told IRIN that humanitarian organizations have predominantly focused on children and their mothers, leaving old persons to fend for themselves in disasters.
"When we are seeing an increasing number of contexts where older people are the last to leave camps and are unable to return home or integrate locally without considerable assistance - the result can be destitution at worse," she said.
Wells emphasized the need to formulate displacement policies that are friendly to older persons and integrate them within humanitarian response programmes.
"Older people face specific risks related to their age and have specific needs that should be taken into account - such as reduced mobility, difficulty in accessing information, services and support, psychological consequences of losing a lifetimes' work and adapting to a completely new environment," she added.