Internally Displaced Persons

You never saw it coming, but suddenly the place you called home your entire life is under attack. Your family and friends are terrified—there's no choice but to run. Quickly you try to pack up what belongings you have and get out of harm's way. You find yourself in another part of the country, safe for the time being but with nothing besides a single suitcase and your loved ones. What now? Where can I go? Will we remain safe? The questions run through your head as your world turns upside down.

Internally Displaced Persons Internally Displaced Persons

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    Around the world, people are forced to run from conflict and disasters, and either cannot leave their country or don't want to leave a land they call their own. Keep reading to learn more about internally displaced persons and their difficulties.

    Internally Displaced Persons Definition

    Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons, or IDPs for short, have not left their country's borders. An internally displaced person is a forced migrant–meaning they left their homes due to reasons out of their control. Forced migrants contrast with voluntary migrants, who might move within their own country seeking better employment, for example. International aid organizations differentiate between refugees and IDPs because of the different legal situations they encounter depending on whether they cross an international border.

    Internally Displaced Persons: Individuals who have to leave their homes against their will but stay within their own country.

    According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there were a total of over 55 million internally displaced persons worldwide as of December 31, 2020. In the next section, let's discuss some causes of internally displaced persons.

    Causes of Internally Displaced Persons

    Someone becomes an IDP through both natural and human-caused forces. The three primary causes are wars, natural disasters, and persecution.

    Armed Conflict

    Wars are devastating to all involved. Someone's home might be destroyed by fighting, or they decide to abandon their home to save their lives. Civilians caught in battle seek out safer places, including areas within a country's borders. High crime rates are another cause of internal displacement; people seek safer areas if living in their neighborhoods becomes too dangerous.

    Internally Displaced Persons South Sudan StudySmarterFig. 1 - IDPs seeking shelter in South Sudan as a result of its civil war

    Today's places with the largest IDP populations are all due to armed conflict.

    Natural Disasters

    Countries big and small suffer natural disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes. The geographical diversity and size of some nations mean certain parts might end up damaged in a disaster while others are safe.

    Take, for example, a coastal town. A tsunami rushes in and destroys the seaside town while sparing a neighboring inland city. The residents of that coastal town become IDPs as they seek a safe haven from the destruction.

    Political and Ethnic Persecution

    Oppressive regimes throughout history engage in the persecution of their own people. This oppression sometimes involves the physical displacement of people. In various periods in the Soviet Union, people seen as opponents of the government were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to far-flung places within its borders. Even if not under forcible removal, people can decide to move to safer areas where they feel less vulnerable.

    Three Needs of Internally Displaced Persons

    Like refugees, IDPs face challenges and needs arising from being forced from their homes.

    Material Needs

    On the most basic level, someone forced to leave their primary form of shelter means they must find a new one. Temporary camps are usually the quickest and most cost-effective solution to provide IDPs with the protection they need from the elements. Losing someone's home almost always means losing access to their job and, by extension, their financial lifelines. Especially if an IDP was already impoverished or lost access to their savings, getting access to food and other essentials suddenly becomes dire. If their government is unable or unwilling to provide aid, the situation is even worse.

    Emotional and Mental Needs

    Home is far more than just a roof over your head. Home is all of a person's emotional and social support networks and an essential part of their identity. The acute trauma stemming from their displacement and the long-term mental impacts of losing a sense of home provides obstacles for IDPs to thrive. Aid organizations realize that while delivering food, water, and shelter is crucial, so is deploying social workers and mental healthcare providers to help IDPs cope with their circumstances.

    Legal Needs

    In cases where internal displacement results from illegal activity, IDPs need support in exercising their rights. Several international treaties identify types of forced displacement as unlawful, such as armies forcing civilians to surrender their properties. IDPs may need legal help when reclaiming their homes, especially if it was illegally taken by a regime or commandeered by people who do not own the property.

    Internally Displaced Persons in the US

    Fortunately, due to the relative internal peace and stability enjoyed by its citizens, IDPs in the United States are not common. When people from the US become internally displaced, it's due to natural disasters. The most prominent case of IDPs in the US in recent history is in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    Hurricane Katrina

    Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005. New Orleans, Louisiana, was hit especially hard, with some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods wholly devastated. This destruction resulted in the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people in the Katrina region, of which not all could return to their homes. In the immediate aftermath, the federal government established emergency shelters for the evacuees, which morphed into permanent homes for people who could not have their houses rebuilt quickly enough or didn't have the means to do so.

    Internally Displaced Persons FEMA trailers StudySmarterFig. 2 - Trailers set up by the US federal government to house people displaced by Hurrican Katrina in Louisiana

    The impacts of this displacement were notably more severe for low-income and Black people from the US than for middle- and upper-income people. Ties to employment, community, and support networks were severed, and the government's inability to ensure everyone could return home exacerbated an already fragile situation. Still, not enough affordable housing exists today in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina to allow all displaced residents to return to their homes.

    Internally Displaced Persons Example

    Internal displacement has a long history on every continent in the world. Syria is one of the most prominent examples of a country with a vast population of internally displaced persons. March of 2011 saw the eruption of a civil war in Syria which has raged since then. The fighting is between multiple factions, all vying for control of the country. While many people left the country altogether, becoming refugees, others fled to safer parts of the country or found themselves stuck between war-torn areas.

    Internally Displaced Persons UN aid trucks StudySmarterFig. 3 - United Nations trucks delivering aid to those displaced from the Syrian Civil War

    Because of the dynamic situation in Syria and the various groups vying for control, providing aid to the IDPs is challenging. The Syrian government, which currently controls most of the territory, accepts humanitarian assistance for IDPs and limits access to other areas to pressure its opponents. Throughout the conflict, accusations of mistreating IDPs or disrupting aid workers have occurred on all sides. The refugee and IDP crisis in Syria worsened starting at the onset of the Civil War and reached the highest total number of IDPs in 2019, with the number remaining largely stagnant since then. The refugee crisis sparked heated debates in Europe and North America about what to do with the migrants and whether to accept them.

    Problems of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

    Refugees and IDPs face many similar issues as well as some unique ones because of the different geographies they are in.

    Obstacles to Receiving Assistance

    Because internally displaced persons are within their own country, aid organizations face different challenges in helping them. While refugees usually flee to more stable areas away from conflict zones, IDPs can be in active war zones or at the whims of a hostile government. If governments displace their own people, that same government is unlikely to be welcoming to international assistance for those people. Aid organizations must ensure they can safely bring supplies and their workers to where people need them, but the danger presented by armed conflict makes that much harder.

    Review the articles on slavery, refugees, and asylum seekers to gain a deeper understanding of the different types of forced migration.

    Rebuilding Livelihoods

    Whether someone's home was destroyed or spared, IDPs and refugees struggle to rebuild the lives they had before displacement. The trauma suffered is an obstacle, as well as the financial burden that rebuilding brings. If an IDP cannot ever return home, finding suitable employment and a sense of belonging is challenging in the new place they must live. If their displacement was due to political or ethnic/religious discrimination, the local populations might be hostile to their presence, complicating the process of establishing a new life.

    Internally Displaced Persons - Key takeaways

    • Internally displaced persons are people forced to leave their homes but remain within their own countries.
    • People become IDPs mainly due to armed conflict, natural disasters, or government actions.
    • IDPs face additional difficulties in receiving outside help because they are often caught in active war zones, or repressive governments prevent them from receiving aid.
    • Like other forms of forced migration, IDPs suffer from poverty and physical and mental health issues stemming from their circumstances.


    1. Fig. 1: IDPs in South Sudan (,_Juba,_February_2014._IDP%E2%80%99s_is_South_Sudan_find_a_safe_shelter_at_the_UN_compound_in_Juba,_the_UN_House_IDP_Camp_(12986816035).jpg) by Oxfam East Africa ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Internally Displaced Persons

    What is the meaning of an internally displaced person?

    Internally displaced person means someone who is forced to relocate within their own country. 

    What are the causes of internally displaced persons?

    The causes of internally displaced persons are war, natural disasters, and government actions. Armed conflicts lead to widespread destruction, and people often need to flee. Natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis lead to people needing a new home, depending on the degree of damage. Governments can also persecute people by forcing them to relocate or destroying their homes, often as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.

    What is the main difference between an internally displaced person and a refugee?

    An internally displaced person differs from a refugee because they did not leave their country. Refugees cross international borders to get to safety. However, they are both types of forced migrants and have similar causes.

    Where are the most internally displaced people?

    The most internally displaced people today are in Africa and Southwest Asia. Syria officially has the largest number of IDPs, but the recent war in Ukraine has also led to a massive IDP population, making Europe one of the areas with the most IDPs as well.

    What are the problems of internally displaced persons?

    The problems of IDPs are the loss of their lives and property, resulting in a massive loss in quality of life. Health issues are also prominent due to conditions in displacement camps and war conditions. Disenfranchisement of their human rights would be another problem if they were displaced due to government actions.

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