Enforced Disappearance and the Experiences of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

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By: Kevin M. DeJesus, PhD                                             

The scope of traumatic experiences that many refugees endure is staggering. The violence displaced persons live through, and the losses they often experience can induce profound psychological trauma. In the broadest terms, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) endure ruptures of place and relationships, as circumstances of political violence impel their flight.

Importantly, it must be understood that these psychological, and even physical wounds, are withstood due to the immense capacities for survival, adaptation and ingenuity in the face of well-founded fear and threat displaced persons face. This article intends to deepen understanding of these complex circumstances displaced persons contend with. The focus on the phenomenon of enforced disappearance as a part of the lived effects of political violence intends to expand the ways in which political violence as a lived phenomenon, and deeply effecting experience that practitioners and researchers will encounter.

To that end, grasping the significances found in the very particularities of traumatic experiences, such as those suffered by enforced disappearance (e.g., refugees and IDP), a route to understanding the traumatic sequelae that people present with, is to become keenly aware of the sociopolitical contexts, events and complexities of the places from which displaced persons flee, and re-locate to.  These contexts reveal the reasoning for particular acts of political violence that seem senseless and beyond comprehension.  Grasping this enables the practitioner and/or researcher to develop a deeper sense of the ways in which people are targeted and traumatized. This is critical, as political violence is often manifested through the intentional destruction of people’s social, cultural, physical and material means. Enforced disappearance is both a tool of political violence, as well as a common phenomenon that people who are or were displaced live with.

Comprehending the psychosocial effects of living such political violence requires understanding the contexts of these individuals’ lives in holistic and relational terms. Such an approach debunks the myth of the mind and mental life as isolated. They are in many respects contingent on our social world and experiences.  Leibniz’s influential construct of the monad – reducing elements to their singular form, remains a central feature of Western psychological models’ social scientific conceptions of how societies work (Leavitt, 2009). However, this approach finds its limits when encountering non-Western cultures and the seemingly intense connectivity and relationality that defines the contours of family life and social relationships. In the many places where refugees and IDP flee, models of social structure, institutions and practices do not fit conceptually and, therefore they do not fit in practice (see for instance, Joseph, 2008, 1999).

Ironically, the Harvard Trauma Model (H5), in articulating its core intersecting (or overlapping) elements, ironically excludes the role of social relationships – both in terms of those ruptured due to forced migration, as well as in the phases of life lived beyond the initial displacement experience. Across these phases, trauma is either pervasive, or it is managed, transformed, and to varying degrees, accommodated and healed – with social relationships integrally involved in all of these post-trauma outcomes. For our purposes, this model is concerning in two ways: it omits the ways in which political violence is inherently social in its intent, expression and capacity to inflict human damage and suffering (see Scarry, 1985; Nordstrum, 1994; Valentine, 1996; Rejali, 2004, 2000; Humphrey, 2002; Bourgois, 2015). Also, this model in its articulation reduces the significance of social relationships of all types (family, friendship, neighborhood and community, humanitarian staff, religious communities, workplace, etc.) Within the H5 conception, social relationships hold a marginal place amidst the path whereby people cope with, overcome, transcend and manage the trauma, losses and material, and psychological suffering endured as a displaced person (refugee or IDP). The following visual endeavors to conceptualize the dimensions of the human refugee experience in a more holistic manner.

Dimensions of the Refugee Experience

Following the argument that political violence is not random, but rather adheres to a social logic that deploys the human social experience as a weapon of war and armed conflict, we need to situate the prevalence of enforced disappearance within a broad conceptualization of the multitude of victimizations and experiences that refugees and internally displaced persons withstand.

Enforced disappearance is defined in Article 2 of the UN Convention Against Enforced Disappearance to be “…the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

What this definition proposes is a partial perspective on the actualities of war and terrorism, as it continues unabated in numerous places across the globe. While states are indeed a prime progenitor of acts of disappearance against opposing political actors (Robins, 2010), non-state actors have readily engaged in the practice of politically-motivated abduction, detention and withholding of information about the whereabouts of individuals for decades. As I have written previously (DeJesus, 2015, 2011), the civil war in Lebanon typifies the role of non-state, para-military organizations, terrorist organizations and proxy agents utilizing enforced disappearance as an instrument of armed conflict and political violence.

21st Century Spaces of Conflict and Terror

As some of the wars and armed conflicts of the 20th century found their end, the present century -however in its early years still – has been marked by a geography of war that literally, and due in part to technological innovation, takes war, everywhere (Gregory, 2011). Nordstrum’s (2004) landmark study of political violence identifies how power and violence are intensified through the sheer ubiquity of armed conflict, compelling an expanded view of where we understand war to be waged by way of the very question, “…where do we find war?” (p. 46).  Following Nordstrom and Gregory, it is therefore critical to view the body as a vital site in the making of political violence. From the loss of limbs due to the insidious nature of cluster bombs, to the abduction of an individual and the refusal to provide information about the whereabouts of this body – alive or dead – political violence has spread in and through places we must consider vital to grasping the logics and impacts of how violent political conflict is waged.

The impact of waging war in the most intimate of spaces, deploying the most sacred as sacrificial – a refugee or IDP’s own kin, for instance – renders survivors between the vacuous space of loss and fragile possibility. A psychotherapist working with families of the disappeared explains this impact on those survivors of the disappeared, “…ambiguous loss can traumatize and immobilize grief and coping processes, and prevent individuals and families from moving forward with their lives” (Twala, 2016). For refugees who have family members disappear as a political act, the psychological, and sociological complexities they endure are deepened by the uncertainty that defines the legacy of this far too common consequence of political violence and armed conflict. In fact, scores of families in Iraq have endured the disappearance of a loved one due to the brutal tactics of ISIS, where enforced disappearance is a continual tactic of this terrorizing force (see Hassan, 2016; Center for Victims of Torture, 2017).

                          The Abyss of Uncertain Fate and Uncertain Loss         

The quest to comprehend, define, articulate and respond to the distinct psycho-social impacts of enforced disappearance remains a fluid pursuit. The seminal work of Agger (1994) and Agger & Jensen (1996), published a decade ago, foregrounded how political violence in Pinochet’s Chile was intricately social in its intent and manifestations. Indeed, the work of these authors explicated how political violence is deployed through the manipulation or targeting of social relationships, roles, social statuses, families, and communities and is aimed at the cultivation of society-wide terror. It is said that during this period, when enforced disappearance proved a hallmark of Pinochet’s Junta, Chile was, in response to these tactics, “dying of fear.” (Lechner, 2003). Enforced disappearance is about the establishment of cultures of fear, impunity, and submission and constitutes a tool of power in the making of political violence in our time.

    Functions of Enforced Disappearance in Armed Conflicts                                      

According to a relatively recent briefing (2016) from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the following assessment about the increasing number of cases of enforced disappearance was made public:

“Last year alone, we dealt with 483 urgent actions out of 766 newly reported cases of disappearance in 37 States; more than three times higher than those reflected in our previous year’s annual report, they added,           highlighting that this number – more than one disappearance per day – is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Emergent and on-going political crises are generating substantial numbers of cases in places such as Mexico, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, while war and conflict of years past remain a source of indefinite disappearance that families may endure for decades. Countries such as Bosnia, El Salvador, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka are tragic examples of places where the disappeared have been whereabouts unknown for decades (ICMP, 2017; Amnesty International, 2015). The trauma and despair associated with these very long-term disappearances ought not be underestimated; families and individuals across generations are impacted by these ambiguous losses.

With its increasingly accessible support for displaced persons and migrants, the practitioner community must engage more widely with information about the prevalence, impact and legacy of enforced disappearance, and those therapeutic approaches that focus on intercultural experience and their interwoven nature within social-psychological processes.


The view from an IDP camp tent in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by the author, 2017.

A recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, where scores of internally displaced persons live in IDP and refugee camps, revealed the need to engage issues of enforced disappearance in a more fluid view. A total understanding of the traumatic experiences entailing flight, relocation and self-preservation in IDP or refugee camps, includes accounting for the real possibility that people are also enduring the enforced disappearance of a family member.

Ensuring political rights, along with those rights that are vital to sheer daily survival, such as the right to movement, means that refugees or IDPs can also, if safe circumstances are present, engage with their experience enduring enforced disappearance. With great staff sensitivity, the psychosocial well-being of families of the disappeared may be enhanced through greater dialogue and engagement around these issues.

Accordingly, fostering spaces of dialogue will enable the capacity for people to articulate fears, despair and determination to learn the whereabouts of their kin. Engaging organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and encouraging psychological and social supports to be developed appropriate to the political landscape and security of the family/families of the disappeared, can be realized.

It must be cautioned that reprisals against family members, and the disappeared persons themselves, depending on contexts, are potentially real risks. Confronting cultures of impunity, un-responsive governments and militias or para-military organizations engaging in the practice of forcibly disappearing those in their midst is complex. In zones of active conflict, these issues must be responded to with great concern for the psychological, physical, social safety and well-being of the refugees and displaced persons who are the disappeared’s survivor family.  Engaging Non-Government Organizations working in these areas on such issues is a vital step in creating these supports.

The need remains for cross-cultural research in the social sciences focused on the prevalence of enforced disappearance among refugees and IDPs, the coping mechanisms individuals and families employ and the ways in which issues such as encampment or relocation impact the experience of enduring enforced disappearance of a loved one. The role of social relationships and advocacy as mediators of the despair, fear, guilt, and longing that family members experience are also issues of great relevance.

Greater awareness of this phenomenon and its legacies will enable practitioners across the humanitarian and social service spectrum to engage and support persons who live the ordeal of enforced disappearance amidst their often daunting experience as refugees or internally displaced persons.

The author was supported by a Faculty Research Fellowship from the Faculty Center for Academic Excellence & Innovation and the Provost’s office at Johnson & Wales University while working on this project.


Kevin M. DeJesus, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Johnson & Wales University. His research encompasses geopolitics, violently-divided societies, the lived impact of armed conflict, political violence, international relations and armed groups.



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