31 December 2013 |

Colombia: Internal displacement in brief

As of December 2013


Despite the optimism surrounding a peace process seeking to end decades of civil war, Colombia continues to suffer one of the world’s most dramatic humanitarian emergencies. The government has been in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) since 2012, but in the absence of a bilateral ceasefire the conflict has run on unabated. Widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law associated with it continued to cause internal displacement in 2013, as did criminal violence.

Through the end of 2013, the government’s official registry put the number of victims of forced displacement dating back to 1985 at nearly 5.5 million. The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) has yet to publish its 2013 figures, but the respected national NGO’s figure for the end of 2012 was more than 5,700,000. Both sets of data are cumulative, however, and as such do not take into account those IDPs who have managed to achieve a durable solution or those who have died in displacement. Around 300,000 people are thought to have been newly displaced each year since 2000.

Military confrontations between armed groups and the security forces, and direct threats to individuals and communities cause the vast majority of displacements. Widespread abuses, including the recruitment of minors, sexual violence, the deployment of anti-personnel mines, extortion and the targeting of human rights defenders have also forced many people to the flee their homes. The guerrillas of the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (known by its Spanish acronym ELN) have both caused displacement, but re-emerging paramilitary groups and organised crime syndicates commit the majority of abuses and violence against civilians. They assassinated 37 human rights workers in the first half of 2013 alone, an increase from 29 during the same period the previous year.

The majority of IDPs flee their homes in small numbers, but larger displacements have increased in recent years. Intra-urban displacement is also on the rise, though flight from rural to urban areas is still the predominant pattern. There are no displacement camps in Colombia, which means IDPs almost invariably seek shelter in host communities.

IDPs who relocate to or within urban areas have less access to basic necessities such as housing and livelihood opportunities than their impoverished neighbours. Armed groups also continue to stigmatise and target community leaders even after their displacement. IDPs living in such precarious conditions are generally considered to be most vulnerable to the impact of disasters brought about by natural disasters.

Disproportionate numbers of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, Colombia’s main ethnic minorities, have been displaced in the past few years. The majority of these groups live in the country’s Pacific coast departments, from where more than a third of recent IDPs have fled.

Colombia has one of the world’s oldest and most developed legal frameworks for responding to internal displacement, thanks largely to the extraordinary engagement of civil society and the country’s Constitutional Court. The current government has improved efforts to assist and compensate victims of the armed conflict, including IDPs, through the implementation of the 2011 Victims Law. In a significant legal development in 2013, the Constitutional Court also obliged the government to recognise the tens of thousands of people who fled organised crime groups and the new generation of paramilitaries as IDPs.

IDPs have been given better access to regular social welfare programmes, but only a small number have so far received the financial reparations outlined by the Victim’s Law. The government’s response to mass displacements has improved, but immediate assistance for smaller groups of IDPs has often been delayed significantly because local authorities are over-burdened.

The government’s most daunting challenge lies in the restitution of IDPs’ land. Only a small fraction of the cases submitted to specialised judges have been ruled upon, and many of those trying to reclaim their land have been threatened and risk being targeted by the same armed groups and local mafias who displaced them. Violent opposition to the restitution process has led to a decrease in the number of claims, as many IDPs decide to prioritise their physical security over the recovery of their land. Agrarian strikes in August 2013 highlighted the crisis in small-scale agriculture and raised questions about the viability of IDPs’ return to the countryside.  

The government receives substantial international support in its efforts to help IDPs, but only a small percentage of development assistance is dedicated to humanitarian needs. Even given the best-case scenario in which Colombia reaches a peace agreement with the FARC, persistent insecurity and criminality will require a long-term international commitment to the country.