Colombia: Latin America’s, if not the World’s, Capital of Internally Displaced People

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• Colombian civilians forced to flee homes and seek shelter in Ecuador to escape violence
• Homelessness is an issue of immense importance and has been consistently neglected by Bogotá
• Colombia – The world’s leader in homelessness

Having an estimated population of 43,677,372, Colombia possesses the second largest population on the South American continent. With a steamy history of political and social unrest, an undisputed leadership in the illicit narcotics trade, corruption, endemic violence, along with unrelenting guerrilla and paramilitary insurgencies, the quality of Bogotá’s execution of authority remains to be questioned. It also has caused the Colombian citizenry to seek refuge both internally within the nation and in the urban sprawl of cities in neighboring countries such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and the United States. Colombia’s current humanitarian pandemic is so dire that many analysts and organizations have noted that the country has surpassed Sudan as having the most staggering internal displacement crisis in the world. In 2007 alone, conflict between Colombian government forces and armed groups resulted in the displacement of more than 300,000 people, only adding to the millions that have been displaced in the country since the 1980s. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a Colombian nongovernmental organization, about 380,000 nationals were forced to leave their homes in 2008 due to armed conflict, and it estimates that the total figure for displaced Colombians amounts to as many as 4.6 million since the early 1980s.

Perspective of Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Established by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDM), an international entity based in Geneva, Switzerland that dedicates itself to monitoring conflict-induced internal displacement, maintains that Colombia is the only Latin American country with an increasing number of displaced people, even surpassing internally-displaced crises all over the world. Collectively, Colombians attribute death threats, recruitment pressure to join the guerrilla and / or paramilitary forces, and clashes between the military and other security forces as being among the top reasons that lead them to have to abandon their homes. Moreover, in their 2007 Global Overview of Trends and Development report, IDM has declared that Colombia, Iraq and Sudan together account for approximately 50 percent of the world’s displaced people.
While there are numerous complex and multi-faceted factors that account for the displacement of Colombians, political violence remains the most compelling factor, a dynamic that is deeply rooted in Colombian history. Colombians have long been forced from their homes as a decades-long civil war between left-wing guerrilla groups, pitted against right-wing paramilitary organizations and the Colombian military, have persisted. Furthermore, intertwined dynamics of internal armed conflict, drug trafficking and common crime intensify Colombia’s displacement crisis and its human rights situation, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) report that highlights the human rights situation on the continent.

IDM’s analysis of Colombia’s current crisis reveals that 580,879 persons have been displaced to date by the guerrilla groups–273,508 by paramilitaries and 13,977 by the government forces. Colombia’s most prominent active guerilla group is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the lesser known force is the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC, who strengthened its presence in the country between the 1960s and 1980s, have been known to engage in tactics such as ransom kidnappings, whereby wealthy landowners or tourists are targets for abduction, as are important domestic and international officials.

Impact of Displacement

With approximately eighty percent of internally displaced Colombians seeking refuge in urban centers, the displacement phenomenon continues to have a significant social impact on Colombian society. Once removed to the cities, the internally displaced habitually encounter difficulty finding adequate housing, obtaining health care and locating employment in order to be able to support themselves. As a result, many displaced persons and their families have no option but to settle in shanty towns where basic services, such as clean water, sewage and electricity, are lacking or non-existent, thus making the transition from rural to urban life disturbing and very rough. In addition, a significant proportion of the population of displaced persons consisting of women and children are being forced to take up arms and fight as soldiers in a conflict that they repudiate.

Other devastating effects on children include the lack of adequate access to both education and health care, the inability to continue school after their families have been displaced and their incorporation into a child labor pool. Additionally, displaced women also are at risk. A 2008 survey conducted by Doctors Without Borders (DWB), for which the organization was providing health care to displaced Colombians, found that thirty-five percent of health care recipients were women, while twenty-two percent of those who sought such aid reported that they had been raped at least once. Moreover, the survey established that approximately ninety percent of the victims ranged in age from 13 to 49 years old.

In an annual report published by CODHES in 2007-2008, the number of internally displaced Colombians increased from 305,638 persons to 380,863 persons. According to the current president of CODHES, Jorge Rojas, families are fleeing their villages to avoid the recruitment of their children by cocaine-funded rebels whose ranks have been thinned by desertions and casualties under President Álvaro Uribe’s harsh security policies. Rojas added that, “any civilian suspected of cooperating with one armed group becomes a military target of the others.” A report titled Forced Displacement and Women as Heads of Households in Colombia concluded that women assume the head of households after their husbands have either disappeared, been murdered or have been prosecuted and sentenced, and have no choice but to deal with the psychological trauma of desertion and loss while simultaneously coping with resettlement.

One of Colombia’s largest indigenous groups, the Embera Indians of the Chocó region in northwestern Colombia near the Panamanian border, is an example of the many indigenous groups that has suffered gravely due to what is virtually a civil war being fought in their region. Caught in the middle of combat between FARC and government troops that have been fighting since 2005 when their preserve became the locale of intense fighting between the FARC and the Colombian army to win control of the area, many Embera now call Colombia’s northwestern Catru indigenous reserve, home. Explaining their plight, Gabriel Forastero, an Embera leader states “They’ve accused us of helping the guerrillas and providing them with food,” adding “They’ve threatened to kill anyone who they wrongly believe is collaborating with the guerrillas.” Forced to leave their homes along the Baudó River due to fighting between the guerrilla and paramilitary groups, the Embera sought refuge at the Catru indigenous reserve. Regarding their flight to Catru, Forastero commented, “No-one dares to be around when those groups start fighting with each other,” and continued, “We end up paying the price.”

In his New York Times article titled “Wider Drug War Threatens Colombians Indians,” Simon Romero reports that much of the fighting that occurs between guerrilla, paramilitary and neo-paramilitary groups is due to the Chocó region’s geographical features. While waterways such as the Baudó River and its water channels provide sustenance for the Embera along with waterway outlets that eventually lead to the Caribbean, Panama and the Pacific, these same water routes serve as viable avenues through which drug traffickers can smuggle cocaine and ship arms. Forastero illustrates the importance of these waterways when he states, “The fighting we’re caught up in, is all about cocaine…With the Pacific nearby, the drug barons have an exit to the world.” Drug traffickers access the Pacific to transport cocaine to drop off points throughout Central America, where it is then picked up by drug cartels and marked for distribution. According to security analysts, obtaining dominance over both the coca-growing areas and the routes used to ship cocaine abroad is the paramount objective of neo-paramilitary groups, such as the Rastrojos who originated from Cali as a drug trafficking syndicate.

Descendants of African slaves who were brought to Colombia during the slave trade to work on the sugar plantations, mines and cattle ranches mainly reside on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Colombia, where their ancestors originally settled. Afro-Colombians who have come to recognize the region of Chocó as their home, while another sector of the Colombian population that is sharply affected by displacement, making up over one third of the displaced population. Similar to the habit of the Embera, the area where Afro-Colombians predominantly reside has become the battleground for armed groups fighting for the valuable terrain with strategic access to the waterways. With many of the displaced migrating from impoverished rural areas to urban centers, Afro-Colombians consistently contribute to a growing population of the urban poor.

In 1996, Marino Córdoba, along with other Afro-Colombians who lived in the municipality of Riosucio, was forced to leave his home due to encroaching paramilitary warfare. In his personal account, Córdoba states “I was displaced from my village of Riosucio in 1996 as a result of a bombing jointly undertaken by the paramilitaries and the Colombian military.” Upon settling in Bogotá, Córdoba continued his leadership role at both the national and international level, serving as Special Assistant to Congresswoman Zulia Mena, founded and became President of the Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) and the Bogotá District Council of Black Organizations. Having faced numerous assassination attempts and death threats, in 2001, the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States summoned the Colombian government to provide Córdoba and his family with the necessary measures to guarantee their safety – a request that was never adhered to. As a result, in January 2002, faced with yet another attempt on his life, Córdoba sought refuge in the United States, where he has asylum status, and continues to be a spokesperson for Afro-Colombian displaced persons and leader of AFRODES.

Role of the Colombian Government and International Organizations

While the Colombian government claims it has had a very progressive attitude when it came to the displacement crisis, other entities such as the Constitutional Court, human rights groups, indigenous communities in Colombia, and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia disagree. What’s more, political analysts assert that a significant amount of legislation regarding the rights of internally displaced people, along with effective enforcement and implementation of said laws is severely lacking. The Constitution of 1991 not only vouchsafes social, cultural and economic rights with Colombia’s marginalized citizens, it also advocates their protection. Furthermore, the principal objective of the creation of the Constitutional Court was to ensure that reforms would be implemented effectively. In 1997, the Colombian legislature adopted Law 387 which stipulates that Bogotá is required to provide humanitarian services. According to this law, individuals who flee violence due to internal conflict are guaranteed to receive food assistance, proper sanitation, dignified housing conditions, and medical and psychological attention for the first ninety days of displacement. To date, the Colombian government’s track record in fulfilling its obligations has been dismal at best, which is quite evident in the fact that the Constitutional Court has attested to these shortcomings on numerous occasions. In a monumental 2004 case involving displaced families, Sentencia T-025/04, the Colombian Constitutional Court declared that the failure of the government to comply with its duty of fulfilling the rights to food, health, work and housing represented an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” and subsequently required that the government adopt both administrative and economic measures that comply with such obligations regarding life, basic health care, education and supporting the re-integration of displaced families and individuals. According to Jorge Rojas, the 2009 public policies implemented by Bogotá grossly failed to comply with the 2004 court ruling.

Refugees International (RI), a non-governmental organization with the mission of advocating “lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises,” notes Bogotá’s grave deficiencies in handling the current crisis. The Uribe government’s response toward the displaced varies and its failures can be attributed to low department level preparation and offers a complete avoidance of the situation. On the other hand, religious groups and non-governmental organizations and humanitarian institutions, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have proved to be more effective at confronting the crisis. Building upon their experience gained through handling previous cases of displacement, combined with the desire to provide available resources, such groups routinely are stepping up to the plate to provide the services the government has failed to deliver.

Finally, heeding the 2004 Constitutional Court ruling, in 2008 Bogotá began to comply with the ruling and established programs to help internally displaced women. Bogotá combined efforts with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in April 2008 and successfully implemented a joint $157 million dollar operation that will provide food along with other forms of humanitarian assistance to at least 530,000 displaced Colombians annually until 2011. “The unanimous support for the implementation of these activities is not only the result of the excellent relationship with the WFP and the Colombian government, but also a testament to the positive results WFP has achieved in the country during the last few years,” commented Praveen Agrawal of the initiative, who is the World Food Programme Country Director of Colombia.

The international medical humanitarian organization, DWB, has played an extremely pivotal role in Colombia, where it has been instrumental in setting up mobile clinics and health care programs that have enabled health care services to be delivered in regions that have been plagued by violence. The mobile clinics have successfully facilitated the delivery of sexual and reproductive health care in addition to mental health services to many displaced Colombians. As of March 2009, many families were forced to leave their homes around the Dubasa River in the Chocó department of Colombia due to fighting between paramilitary groups and the ELN and have sought refuge in the village of Catru, where they have been receiving assistance from DWB since March.

According to their report, DWB has continually conducted psychological and medical consultations, citing the main health problems as malaria, tuberculosis, and child malnutrition. Furthermore, those individuals who have succumbed to pneumonia and extra-pulmonary tuberculosis are referred to hospitals in the capital. DWB also has repaired the water system in Catru to ensure that its inhabitants have access to clean water, and is actively training local health promoters, coaching them on how to prevent diarrhea and malaria and implement basic medical treatments.

Prospects for the Future

The already astronomical number of displaced persons in Colombia deserves a much stronger initiative on behalf of Bogotá. Sadly enough, the only instance where the quandary of the displaced has a slim propensity of unlimbering international concern is when the guerrilla groups, such as the FARC, announce that they will be releasing hostages. Void of international pressure to protect them, many Colombians have sought sanctuary outside of Colombia, as a last ditch effort at finding security by trying to obtain refuge in neighboring Latin countries. U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson and twenty-two other representatives introduced a resolution on March 25, calling for both Bogotá and the United States government to implement the Constitutional Court’s order that significantly states that the human rights record of Colombia is pertinent to the United States Congress’ decisions concerning the nature of the relations between both nations.

The Ecuadorian government, along with UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials, initiated a $2 million enhanced registration project that called for the registration and documentation of the 50,000 Colombian refugees to be found in the northern region of Ecuador. With the registration initiative having come to an end on March 31, Alfonso Morales, head of the department for refugees at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, claims that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Citing increased monitoring of refugees once they have received their documentation in Ecuador, increased projects have focused on social and economic integration of Colombian refugees in that country. The decentralization of the registration process enables smaller offices to be situated along the Ecuador – Colombia border to distribute refugee visas to the 85,000 Colombians who still need to be registered. Both initiatives are among the priorities that both Quito and the UNHCR jointly agree have to be met.
At a news conference, Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesperson stated that the project is very important because “it shortens the waiting period for a government decision on asylum claims from several months to just one day; and it takes the asylum process to the field, where many refugees have been living for years and were unable to access asylum systems in urban areas because they did not have the resources or because they feared being detained.” Among the first 200 to receive a refugee visa, Yolanda, a 37-year-old Colombian, stated, “Since we came to Ecuador, we have been working on a farm in exchange for food and a place to sleep. All this time I have felt as if I was in jail, afraid of leaving the house to buy food or to go to parents’ meetings at my daughter’s school,” adding that she hopes now to be able to get a job and support her family.

Role of the Colombian Government

As long as the perpetual armed conflict in Colombia persists, effects will continue to be made to nurture the country’s humanitarian crisis. Advocacy and support of the efforts of organizations committed to ameliorating the plight of internally displaced people are actions that should be placed at the top of the Colombian government’s priority list. Cognizant that its future relations with the United States will be scrutinized, Bogotá has no other option but to most attentively address the needs and rights of its displaced population with utmost zeal.

Bogotá should not perceive the international community and organizations that it encourages to be active, like those providing solutions and resolving its dilemmas, as being essential. Nor should it become dependent on them, but rather should take the lead and consistently and proactively handle the nation’s humanitarian crisis on its own. With a May 30, 2010 presidential election date looming and Uribe’s second and last presidential term coming to a close, Bogotá has demonstrated that tackling the country’s displacement crisis has not yet become a permanent fixture on its policy agenda and those of potential presidential candidates. All in all, it is imperative that the Colombian government address and overhaul its peace and security policies with the same fervor and zeal it uses to execute its counter-narcotic operations; for until it does, the inequality and social injustice endured by Colombia’s displaced will continue to be exacerbated.