23 February 2012

Displaced persons


The displacement or forced migration of people within their own countries is today a common international phenomenon. Such migration may be caused by internal armed conflicts, situations of general violence, ethnic fights, mass violation of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law or natural disasters. According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights “in more than 50 countries and practically in every world region, Africa, South and North America, Asia, Europe and Middle East, more than 25 million people are actually considered as displaced people just as a result of violent conflicts and human rights violations”. This number increases by several millions with those who have been uprooted by natural or manmade disasters.

There is a world wide tendency for an increase in displaced populations alongside the upsurge of social, political and cultural conflicts. This is in large measure the result of accelerated technological development of arms, which has turned the civil population into the main victims of conflicts.

Displaced people are highly vulnerable. They suffer from discrimination, experience significant deprivation and are frequently impoverished. Marginalised within their own society and facing the emotional trauma of their uprooting experience, displaced people turn into excluded people who suffer loss of economic opportunities, breakdown of cultural identity, loosening of social and familial structures, interruption of schooling and increased poverty levels. They also suffer from grief relating to dead or missing family members and, in extreme cases, resort to delinquency and begging in order to survive.

The impact of displacement is felt more acutely by children, women with small children or heading the family, and disabled and elderly people. It is very common to find that displaced people experience their condition as a “freezing” of their existence expressed by feelings of solitude, confusion, fear and pain and by symptoms of mental illness, of lack of direction and a life plan, of becoming uncommunicative, unhappy and excluded.

While displaced people have the same rights as all others citizens, in reality, they face discrimination. They need special protection and attention during their displacement, return, resettlement or reintegration. Displacement is a social phenomenon that requires preventive strategies within the framework of social and economic development to address the main causes of conflicts that lead to the displacement of individuals and groups. Likewise, social and economic development is the only means to avoid people’s subjugation or permanent dependency on humanitarian assistance.

The International Federation of Social Workers is concerned about the conditions of displaced individuals, the very existence of displacement and the political strategies and programmes, which may have caused it. We deem the conditions harmful to the fulfilment of human rights and contrary to the principles of the social work profession and its International Federation.

The IFSW “Definition of Social Work” adopted in July 2000 states “Human Rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification of social work action. In solidarity with those who are disadvantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion”. It follows therefore that excluded people constitute the main focus for social work as a profession and this inevitably includes people who are displaced.

Background on Displaced People

From it’s beginning, the Social Work profession has been committed to the defence and promotion of Human Rights. Social workers focus on working with the most vulnerable populations across the world regardless of ethnicity, language, gender, sexual preference, religion or belief, ideology, age, physical ability, status or any other condition liable to lead to discrimination. The IFSW policies on children, women, older persons, health, HIV/AIDS, human rights, migration, protection of personal information, refugees, conditions in rural communities and youth are based upon humanitarian principles and values supported, defended and practised by this profession.

Further evidence of this vocation can be found in the Federation’s cooperation with the United Nations in preparing the UN Training Manual on “Human Rights and Social Work” (1994), its Training Manual on “Social Work and the Rights of the Child” (2002) and its commitment to develop policy on displaced persons.

IFSW’s concern about displacement coincides with that of the UN Commission on Human Rights which in its Resolution 73/1992 designated a Special Rapporteur on Internal Displacement in response to growing international concern about the large number of internally displaced people in the world and their need for assistance and protection.

The United Nations has published the “Guiding Principles of International Displacement” and the “Manual on Field Practices of Internal Displacement” to guide us on the subject. IFSW welcomes and supports this guidance.

Several governments have adopted the Guiding Principles as a legal framework for national legislation and as a model for strategies in the field of prevention, protection, assistance and development of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Moreover, the Principles are also taken as models for the provision of special economic and humanitarian assistance in disaster situations.

In addition, several non-government organisations have used the Principles worldwide to promote the cause of internally displaced persons, to evaluate national policies and legislation, and to promote and strengthen their dialogue with governments on IDP rights.

Policy Statement

IFSW considers that

  • internal displacement generally stems from structural causes and must therefore be viewed and addressed within the context of each country’s general problems;
  • displacement caused by political, religious or ethnic conflicts requires special consideration of the phenomenon of social exclusion, both from the point of view of the displaced themselves and that of other actors involved in the displacement process (victims and victimisers);
  • it is essential to identify the cause of displacement (socio-economic, natural disasters, political, religious) in order to ensure the adequacy of any remedial action;
  • since displacement is frequently the result of a weak state and a weak society confronted by situations of general violence, preventive policies promoting peaceful coexistence and respect for Human Rights need to be included in national and local policies. Furthermore, preventive policies should also be conducive to smoother coordination among State institutions and the strengthening of civil society;
  • every effort should be made to ensure the protection, socio-economic well-being and psychological welfare of displaced persons and, ultimately, their repatriation or resettlement. At all times the dignity and self-determination of displaced persons must be upheld;
  • social workers must be sensitive to conditions that increase displaced persons’ vulnerability. These include poverty, the fact of having been uprooted from accustomed locations, the quality of public and social services, and the real presence of the State in the regions;
  • work with displaced populations should aim at sustainability, overcoming dependence on humanitarian assistance, regaining productive capacity, rebuilding socio-cultural and community structures as well as personal and collective ability to contribute proactively to national and regional development. The goal is autonomy and community empowerment and not only survival;
  • it is important to address the emotional needs of displaced people in all interventions. Sustaining people during their mourning process, helping them regain peace of mind, self-confidence and confidence in others, to be conscious of their rights and the obligatory implementation inherent in these rights are all necessary components of psychosocial support within the larger concept of mental health;
  • psychosocial services as well development assistance must give precedence to the most vulnerable, especially women and children;
  • services for displaced populations should be collective and autonomous rather than individual and fragmented;
  • any programme destined for displaced persons should be aware of the effects that displacement has on receiving communities since both populations, the displaced and the receiving ones, are vulnerable.

IFSW stands ready to participate through its member organisations in international aid mechanisms proposed by the United Nations to lend its assistance in situations of displacement in countries where its members are placed.

IFSW urges its member organisations to:

  • instigate pressure mechanisms and action in their countries to prevent or address displacement situations within a concept of preventive, holistic and sustainable development leading to substantial improvements in the population’s quality of life;
  • contribute to the dissemination of the United Nations’ “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” and International Humanitarian Law through the organisation of workshops and training courses; monitor their implementation; evaluate policies and programmes in the field of displacement;
  • link up with non-governmental organisation networks that further dialogue with governments on national legislation and IDP rights within a framework of respect for multiformity, protection of personal information and opposition to all forms of discrimination;
  • contribute to the widening of protection and assistance services for displaced populations;
  • participate in national, regional and local “early alert” mechanisms, in awareness, preparedness or mobilisation of populations at risk of displacement as well as in mitigation of the impact of displacement;
  • be involved in networks, strategy systems and databases set up to facilitate recording, permanent information systems, day-to-day development and evaluation of programmes for displaced people;
  • facilitate, through projects, the mobilisation of resources from state, private, national and international funders, utilising national and international cooperation mechanisms;
  • promote research projects and improved management indicators to facilitate understanding of the displacement phenomenon and evaluate the impact of programmes in this field;
  • promote mechanisms that enable displaced populations to participate in the planning of their own future and as well as in local, regional and national political action;
  • be instrumental in advising governments on best practices in dealing with displacement;
  • work with schools of social work to ensure the introduction of adequate training courses in the area of internal displacement and inclusion of relevant material in qualifying and post-qualifying curricula.

IFSW considers that the role of social workers acting with and for displaced populations should be that of

  • investigators into the political and socio-cultural causes leading to internal displacement, the particular aspects of displacement and its impact on the receiving population and region, the characteristics and conditions of displaced individuals and their potential for development ;
  • participants in the design and formulation of preventive, remedial and developmental policies and programmes for displaced populations, taking into account, wherever possible, the complexities and particularities of each displacement, including viewing them from a gender perspective;
  • social managers with administrative functions in projects and programmes within a framework that encourages the participation of population groups directly and indirectly involved in the displacement;
  • analysts of a wide range of social processes related to power structures, social conflicts, civil coexistence, family and community dynamics, mediation between the State and civil society, and the impact of public policies and social security and social service systems;
  • evaluators of projects on the basis of a quantitative and qualitative analysis of goal achievements and responses to the needs of the population;
  • specialists in human and family problems caused by displacement with the capacity to enhance displaced persons’ inner resources directed towards development;
  • social educators able to convey information on the rights of displaced persons and services available to them, to assess organisation and mobilisation processes, and to act as trainers and motivators for social participation aimed at developing democratic relations;
  • conflict mediators with the ability to lead, summon parties and negotiate, and a give-and-take strategy to reach decisions beneficial to all;
  • agents for strategic alliances among organisations, groups and institutions to achieve the optimal utilisation of available resources, the highest potential for actions directed at the displacement phenomenon and to facilitate the necessary monitoring of these processes.

IFSW is aware that humanitarian assistance and alternative or developmental solutions for displaced persons cannot replace the political will of governments in their quest for solutions for internal conflicts that caused the displacement.


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