Colombia: Displaced and Discarded

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Colombia: Displaced and Discarded

The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Bogotá and Cartagena


By: Anonymous

Date: October 14, 2005

Source: "Colombia: Displaced and Discarded: The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Bogotá and Cartagena." Human Rights Watch 17 (October 14, 2005).

About the Author: Human Rights Watch is an independent human rights organization based in the United States. Founded in 1978, the organization sends fact-finding teams to sites of potential human rights abuses and then publicizes the results in the national and international media to put pressure on governments to institute change.


Colombia, the only country in South America that borders two oceans, is a country rich in natural resources, scenic beauty, and violent history. It is one of the world's bloodiest places, with murder ranking as the number one killer of young adults. The violence has forced the displacement of millions of Colombians and has given Colombia the second largest displacement crisis in the world behind Sudan.

The trouble in Colombia is a direct result of cocaine trafficking. In the 1980s, cocaine became a drug of choice and cocaine trafficking became one of the major Columbian industries. In areas where peasants grew coca as a cash crop, guerillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) protected them. FARC, founded in 1966 to create an independent republic south of Bogotá, violently opposes the Colombian government. The FARC grew to an estimated twenty thousand fighters who continued to harass landowners and engage in the lucrative activity of kidnapping. In turn, these actions by FARC adversely affected the drug traffickers who had become large landowners. The traffickers funded death squads in the 1980s to attack FARC and its peasant supporters. These squads gelled into a fairly cohesive right-wing force, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Negotiations between the government, AUC, and FARC have not proved fruitful. At one point, Colombia ceded a large tract of land to FARC, then rescinded the cession and reoccupied the territory. In 2002, independent candidate Alvara Uribe was elected president on the promise to gain the upper hand in the conflict.

As of 2006, the violence in Colombia is continuing. Various human rights organizations, including U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, have reported that right-wing death squads are targeting peasants who are suspected of supporting FARC, while FARC death squads are killing peasants who are suspected of supporting the right-wingers. The result is a massive displacement of peasants.



The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Bogotá and Cartagena Human Rights Watch October 2005 Vol. 17, No. 4(B)

I. Summary "The autodefensas arrived at 5 a.m.," M.D. told Human Rights Watch, explaining why she and her family fled their homes in Putumayo in 1999. (Autodefensas are members of paramilitary groups.) "They called all of us into a room. There was an elderly man, eighty years old—they killed him. They cut off his head and began to play football with it … They killed five of us in all, including the one whose head they cut off. Another man, they cut his arm off at the shoulder." The paramilitaries took the oldest of her seven children, a thirteen-year-old boy. The rest of the family fled to Bogotá.

Her husband, L.D., interrupted her account to say, "We've been here one month. It's the second time that we've been displaced." He told our researcher that the Social Solidarity Network (Red de Solidaridad Social), the government agency to coordinate humanitarian relief for the enormous number of Colombians who have been driven from their homes during the conflict, helped them relocate to the department of Narinño, to the west of Putumayo along the border with Ecuador. At the end of 2003, the autodefensas forced them to flee again, he said. They received help from strangers after they fled, spending one night sleeping in coffins at a funeral home and another night at a hotel after somebody gave them money for a room. "We found our way here," L.D. said. They had just begun to register with the Social Solidarity Network, a process that by law can take up to fifteen business days to complete. Asked what the Social Solidarity Network had given them to meet their immediate needs during this time, L.D. replied, "Nothing. Nothing."

Human Rights Watch interviewed the couple in a makeshift shelter in a shantytown on the fringes of Bogotá. Established by a group of individuals who had themselves been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict, the three-story house had no running water and no mattresses or blankets for the new arrivals referred there by the Social Solidarity Network. The couple and their children slept on the floor.

After Sudan, Colombia has the world's largest internal displacement crisis. In the last three years alone, nearly 5 percent of Colombia's 43 million people has been forcibly displaced in much the way that this family was—uprooted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods because of the country's armed conflict. It is likely that more than half of all displaced persons are children under the age of eighteen.

Officials in the government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez frequently describe displaced persons as economic migrants. This attitude ignores the reality that many have fled after receiving specific threats or because family members or neighbors were killed by guerrillas or members of paramilitary groups.

Indeed, government officials have suggested that programs to address the needs of displaced persons discriminate against other poor Colombians by, they say, arbitrarily singling out one group of impoverished people for assistance. In fact, displaced families are worse off by any measure—quality of housing, access to sanitation, level of education, and access to employment—than other poor families that have not been displaced, the government Social Solidarity Network found. They face the enormous challenge of finding new homes and employment at the same time that they are struggling to cope with the events that caused them to flee their communities.

Reflecting the mistaken view that most displaced persons have chosen to relocate for economic reasons rather than because of the armed conflict, President Uribe's government has promoted return to home communities as the principal response to internal displacement. Displaced persons, nongovernmental observers, and officials with many international agencies have been sharply critical of this approach, noting that lack of security in many areas often prevents safe return.

In this report, Human Rights Watch examines the hurdles internally displaced persons face in two cities, Bogotá and Cartagena, in access to humanitarian assistance, education, and health care. Internal displacement is a complex phenomenon, one that this report does not attempt to address comprehensively. Instead, this report examines the immediate needs of displaced families once they arrive in their new communities.

Displaced families often confront urgent challenges in providing for their basic necessities once they arrive in their new communities. In a typical account, E.B., an adult man living in the Nelson Mandela barrio on the outskirts of Cartagena, identified immediate humanitarian assistance, shelter, health services, and education as the principal needs he and his displaced neighbors faced.

Colombia is one of a handful of countries that have enacted legislation to protect the internally displaced. Under its Law 387, displaced families are entitled to humanitarian assistance, for example. But the registration process for these benefits can be confusing and cumbersome, despite efforts by the Social Solidarity Network to streamline the process. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found in December 2004 that only half of the families registered over a two-year period actually received humanitarian assistance. For those that do, assistance is limited in most cases to three months.

Displaced children are entitled to attend schools in their new communities, but in practice they face significant hurdles in continuing their education. Some children are turned away because they are asked to produce school records or forms of identification they no longer possess. Others are denied enrollment because schools have no room for them. In many cases, the matriculation fees and related costs of schooling prevent them from attending.

Displaced families have particular health needs, and under Colombian law they should receive free basic health care. Even so, many displaced families are not covered by Colombia's subsidized public health system, not because they do not qualify for coverage but simply because the system is at full capacity. They should be able to receive emergency care, but they are often turned away when they seek medical attention because hospitals have no incentive to provide services for which they will never receive payment. Those who are enrolled in the subsidized health care system must still pay for medications, which may be beyond the reach of the incomes of displaced families.

Because internally displaced persons have not crossed an international border, they are not refugees as that term is used in international law, and the international protections offered to refugees do not apply to them. Their situation as internally displaced persons is addressed in a separate, nonbinding set of international standards, contained in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The Guiding Principles call on states to safeguard the liberty and personal security of displaced persons, guarantee them treatment equal to that given to those who are not displaced, ensure free primary education for their children, and offer them necessary humanitarian assistance, among other safeguards. The state should promote the return of displaced persons to their home communities only when such returns are voluntary and can be accomplished in safety and with dignity.

On paper, Colombia's Law 387 guarantees many of these safeguards. "In Colombia, the laws are very advanced," said Marta Skretteberg, then the head of the Colombian office of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "It has one of the most modern laws with regard to internal displacement. In reality, it's not implemented." As one European official commented, one of the law's chief weaknesses is its failure to give clear responsibility to a single government agency, with the result that "nobody was responsible for the problem." In early 2004, the system of attention for the displaced population had reached such a state of crisis that the Colombian Constitutional Court declared that it was in a "state of unconstitutional affairs" and ordered the state to take corrective measures within one year.

As the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees notes, the government has undertaken some important initiatives to safeguard the well-being of persons who are forcibly displaced. The state has established an early warning system, for example, and has improved its capacity to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to those in immediate need. In response to the Constitutional Court's 2004 decision, the government announced in August 2004 that it would increase the number of places available to displaced students in the country's public schools and would also increase the national health system's coverage of displaced persons. In February 2005 the government adopted a new National Plan of Attention to the Displaced Population (Plan Nacional para la Atención Integral a la Población Desplazada). The government has substantially increased the budget for its programs for displaced persons.

Despite these measures, the failure of local officials to act on information gathered by the early warning system has undermined its effectiveness. As this report documents, many displaced youths have not benefited from the education and public health initiatives. Indeed, the Constitutional Court concluded in September 2005 that the measures taken by the government to comply with its 2004 decision were insufficient both in terms of resources and institutional will.

Implementing the provisions of Law 387 to provide all internally displaced families with humanitarian aid and access to education and health services would be costly. The various Colombian government agencies responsible for implementing the law spent over 436,500 million pesos, about U.S. $175 million, between 2000 and 2003, and the government has allocated 474,000 million pesos (some U.S. $191 million) for 2005. Even so, the General Comptroller of the Republic (Contraloría General de la República) found that actual expenditures for the years 2001 and 2002 were 32 percent less than the funds allocated for assistance to internally displaced persons. If the same is true for the years going forward, these agencies have additional resources that they can draw upon to comply with the Constitutional Court's 2004 decision and address the urgent needs of Colombia's displaced population.

The United States is the most influential foreign actor in Colombia. In 2004 it provided more than U.S. $700 million to the government, mostly in military aid. Although 25 percent of the security assistance included in this package is formally subject to human rights conditions, the conditions have not been enforced. In August 2005, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "determined that there is sufficient progress to certify to Congress that the Colombian Government and Armed Forces are meeting statutory criteria related to human rights and severing ties to paramilitary groups." Such certifications have meant that the full amount of aid continues to flow to Colombia even though the government has failed to break ties between the military and abusive paramilitary groups.

Although most U.S. assistance is in the form of military aid, the Internally Displaced Persons Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will provide some U.S. $33 million in FY 2005 and is expected to continue to provide support at least through 2010. In October 2005, USAID entered into an agreement with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) under which USAID will provide U.S. $100 million over the next five years to fund a joint IOM/PADF project to provide assistance to internally displaced persons and other vulnerable groups.

The European Union has pledged over €330 million (U.S. $410 million) in aid to Colombia in a package that ends in 2006. Unlike U.S. funding, which mainly goes to Colombia's armed forces, nearly all of the European aid goes to civil society and to the United Nations office in Colombia. In addition to their support through the European Union's programs, several E.U. member states, including the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom, provide significant bilateral assistance. Canada and Japan also provide bilateral assistance to Colombia.

Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in and around Bogotá and Cartagena in July and August 2004, with a follow-up visit to Bogotá in September 2005. During our field investigation, we interviewed over seventy adults and children who had been forcibly displaced from their homes because of the conflict. (The names of all children and many of the adults who were forcibly displaced have been changed or withheld to protect their privacy.) We also conducted over fifty other interviews for this report, speaking to teachers, health care providers, activists, academics, lawyers, and government officials.

We assess the treatment of displaced persons according to the standards set forth in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and that of children according to international law, as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments. In this report, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen.


The idea of forcing populations of people out of an original habitat and into a new one is as old as human history. As a concept, the term "displaced people" was first used at the end of World War II to define people liberated from the Nazi concentration camps and not yet relocated into a stable environment. Currently, "displaced populations" is used to designate categories of populations that are forcibly displaced from their environment for different causes. Given the vast numbers of people in such situations, population displacement constitutes a major international concern.

Displaced Colombian people have sought refuge in Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica. Many more have fled to the United States, with several thousand granted asylum. There have been repeated calls by human rights groups for the United States to grant Colombians Temporary Protected Status, a categorization available to persons who cannot return home safely because of conflict or other civil disturbances. As of mid-2006, the U.S. had yet to do so. While the U.S. can absorb large numbers of Colombians, the economies of the weaker Latin American countries cannot easily withstand such an influx. The Colombian displacement has increased border tensions with Colombia's neighbors.

The vast majority of forced migrants remain within Colombian borders, however. The Colombian government has attempted to enact a system that helps the displaced. Comprehensive legislation has specified the rights of the displaced and the responsibilities of government entities at all levels. The system is coordinated by the Network of Social Solidarity (RSS), created in 1994. RSS gives basic services to the displaced for free for three months and thereafter for a small charge. The sheer numbers of the displaced have overwhelmed the system and the situation shows no signs of improving in the near future.



Richani, Nazih. Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia. Albany, N.Y.: The State University of New York Press, 2002.

Stafford, Frank and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Violence in Colombia, 1990–2000, edited by Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sànchez. Wilmington, N.C.: SR Books, 2001.

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Colombia: Displaced and Discarded

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