Serving those ignored by the State: Social work with internally displaced persons

By Noella Edwards

My path to a social work degree has in part been influenced by experiences of being, for several years of my life, an internally displaced person (IDP) in my country, India. An identity based political movement in my hometown, Darjeeling resulted in people of a particular political affiliation, including my family, being forced to flee out of our homes and from everything that was familiar.

Our homes were vandalised and destroyed, wrecking not only our physical possessions but also erasing generations of cherished memories. We were exposed to physical and emotional trauma, separated from extended family and social ties. Unlike refugees, who are protected by international law, IDPs are legally under the protection of their governments who often intend to cause them harm. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)  estimates that there are at least 616,140 people internally displaced in India while it estimates the total worldwide displacement figure as of 2016 as 71,423,122 .

The Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement (GPID), defines an internally displaced person. The main difference between a refugee and an IDP is that a refugee is one who has crossed international borders and an IDP is one who has not. The GPID, while placing the primary responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance on national authorities, also recognises support from international organisations. However, according to Rao (2013), India regards assistance from international actors as unwelcome. At the same time,  Rao says that there is a marked lack of formal protection systems for IDPs in India. A report by KumKum Dasgupta on 11 August, 2016 in the Guardian also highlights the need for India to provide adequate assistance to IDPs and to legislate laws consistent with GPID.

The International Federation of Social Workers’ (IFSW) policy statement on IDPs calls upon social workers to be sensitive to the conditions of the displaced person’s vulnerability and to aim at sustainability, autonomy, and community empowerment based on services that are collective. Since the Holocaust, according to Levine (2001), social workers have a long record of assisting in the psychosocial change of displaced populations. The traumatic experiences of victims, according to her, are suffered by them in silence. The challenge, she says is to first find these often unseen vulnerable people and then to serve them.

Social workers are trained and equipped with tools to make interventions to alleviate the suffering of IDPs, such as a framework suggested by Levine (2001) based on culturally sensitive, systems perspective, strengths-based, empowerment and advocacy tools to prevent a conspiracy of silence. Occupational therapy and solution-focused models were found to be most appropriate (Stickley & Stickley, 2010).

The primary hurdle to working with IDPs is sovereignty. The UNHCR finds that sovereignty is a justification for resisting or obstructing international aid efforts where often governments categorize internally displaced persons as ‘migrants’ or ‘terrorists’ to avoid responsibility for them.  Amra Levnjak from Lund University, Sweden confirms this in a study that investigates the work of international non-governmental organisations (INGO) working with IDPs in Columbia, and finds that one of the primary difficulties was strained relationship with the government. Such attitudes of government create further hurdles such as funding and safety concerns for workers.

Despite the myriad difficulties faced by social workers working for IDPs, considering the international concerns at increasing numbers of IPDs around the world, it is a field of practice which would provide challenging opportunities for social workers to be creative and bring about social justice and change.


Levine, J. (2001). Working with victims of persecution: Lessons from Holocaust survivors. Social Work, 46, 350-360.

Rao, T. (2013). Protecting internally displaced persons in India. Retrieved from

Stickley, A. & Stickley, T. (2010). A holistic model for rehabilitation and recovery of internally displaced people in war-torn Uganda. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 73(7), 335-338.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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2 Responses to Serving those ignored by the State: Social work with internally displaced persons

  1. miria says:

    Very good Noella. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story.

    Liked by 1 person

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