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Working with displaced people

Displaced people are those who have left their normal living area because their lives or their livelihoods were in danger

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Flooding in Pakistan in 2010 affected 20 million people. Photo: Ashraf Mall/Tearfund

From: Managing disasters – Footsteps 88

How to prepare for disasters and reduce the risk of them occuring

Displaced people are those who have left their normal living area because their lives or their livelihoods were in danger. They have moved to a new area to avoid further losses of life and property, and because of the risk of further disaster. Natural disasters are one main cause of displacement. Hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, windstorms and droughts may destroy or damage homes and livelihoods to such an extent that it is no longer safe or practical for people to remain at home.

Local communities and organisations, such as the local church or other faith groups, are often already in a position to respond immediately to the arrival of displaced people. The desire to help those in need is often strong but the practical aspects of dealing with the sudden arrival of a large group of people can be challenging.

Here are some of the problems that displaced people typically face:

  • They may be in a poor state of nutrition or health.
  • They may have been unable to bring essential household goods or food.
  • They may have no assets because they have lost them in the disaster, have sold them to raise money or because of robbery.
  • They may lack identity papers and/or travel documents.
  • They may lack access to land and employment.
  • They may have limited access to markets in their new area.
  • They may not be able to access the health, education or other social services available to local residents.
  • They may be traumatised and in need of social support and/or counselling.
  • Families members may be separated, including children being separated from their parents.
  • Women and children in particular may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation or violence.
  • Local communities may be hostile to the arrival of the displaced people and may be unwilling to share resources, particularly if those resources are scarce.
  • Local governments may perceive displaced people as a threat to peace and stability in the area and may seek to contain them in camps or other confined spaces.
People in Sudan on the move having been displaced

Conflict is also a major cause of displacement. Between January and October 2011, nearly 326,000 people were internally displaced by conflict incidents in South Sudan (UN South Sudan Consolidated Appeal 2012). Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

How to respond

Responding to the needs of displaced people will require generosity and a desire to ‘love your neighbour’. It is likely that your community already has significant resources to offer in response to the needs of displaced people, even if you cannot meet all their needs.

  • Premises and equipment such as church buildings, a hall or a school can provide quick and accessible short-term shelter for traumatised people. The compound in which they are located offers added protection.
  • Equipment and utensils (sometimes kept to feed large numbers at weddings or other celebrations) can now be used to feed the displaced families.
  • Volunteers can cook local food that people will eat, and they can organise distributions within the camp.
  • Community leaders are usually able to mobilise and motivate people into responding quickly.
  • Local knowledge and language can help to guide displaced people in making key decisions whilst they are in a complex and unusual social environment.
  • Faith communities can also offer emotional support and prayer for those who are bereaved or distressed.

For more practical guidance on how to respond to the needs of displaced people, read Chapter Four of Disasters and the Local Church by downloading it from this website or ordering a hard copy (for more details see Resources page).

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