USCR Returns to Colombia

Finds Displaced Still Living in Deplorable Conditions

Displaced Child(In 1993, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), a nongovernmental organization that works to defend the rights of refugees and displaced persons worldwide, visited Colombia and published a major report on the situation for internally displaced Colombians. In November 1997, USCR returned to Colombia to assess the current situation for the displaced. Following are some of USCR policy analyst Hiram A. Ruiz's findings.)

In 1993, USCR reported that an estimated 300,000 Colombians were internally displaced. A year later, a new study carried out in Colombia revealed that the number was in fact some 600,000. Today, more than a million Colombians, one in every 40, are internally displaced, and dozens (sometimes hundreds) more become displaced every day.

The Colombian government's formal recognition of the scale and impact of internal displacement came late. It was only in 1992 that the government began to provide some limited assistance to its displaced citizens. During the ensuing years, the government has paid more public attention to the plight of the displaced. This summer it passed a new law that outlines the government's responsibilities towards the displaced, and has created a new government agency, the Consejeria Presidencial para la Atencion Integral a la Poblacion Desplazada por la Violencia, to coordinate government programs for the displaced. The government has also reached out to the international community for assistance, inviting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to Colombia. [As of mid-December, UNHCR had not announced its response to the invitation, although there were strong indications it would accept.]

While these are welcome steps, they are still too little, too late. On the ground, the government has not in fact improved conditions for most displaced persons. The new law on the books reads well, but has yet to be implemented. More displaced persons may have received the government's 90-day emergency assistance package, but once that emergency aid ends, most are still left to fend for themselves.

Deplorable Conditions.

Today, most of the displaced live in overcrowded rooms or makeshift shacks in shantytowns that have grown up around Bogota, Medellin, and other departmental (state or provincial) capitals and towns. Despite their proximity to cities and the amenities that those offer, most displaced Colombians lack electricity, running water, and sanitation facilities. Also, the labor market in the communities in which the displaced live cannot absorb them. Therefore, few have full-time jobs; most find only daily laboring work in construction, road-building, cleaning private homes, or as street vendors work that rarely pays more than what it costs just to feed a family.

Although the government has called for displaced children to be given priority in school enrollment, many displaced children do not go to school either because local schools are full and do not accept them, or because parents cannot afford to buy the uniforms and supplies children need to attend school. Displaced persons' access to health care is also patchy. They may be able to see a doctor or receive hospital treatment without charge, but then will not have the money to buy the medication they need.

Complex Causes.

While displacement is usually described as being the result of the "armed conflict" in Colombia, closer examination reveals that this explanation does not tell the full story. Displacement in Colombia has a number of complex, interwoven causes.

The main actors in the conflict in Colombia are the Colombian government and its armed forces, left-wing guerrilla groups, and illegal right-wing paramilitary organizations. Rarely, however, do these groups actually fight each other. Their violence is mostly directed at unarmed civilians. Typically, guerrillas or paramilitaries enter a village, accuse the residents of aiding or sympathizing with the opposing side, brutally murder several residents, and threaten more violence against the remaining population. Following such attacks, many people flee the village out of fear, or, in the case of attacks by paramilitaries, they leave because the paramilitaries order them to abandon the village. In the past two years, paramilitaries have become the primary group responsible for displacement in Colombia.

Ostensibly, each side carries out these attacks in order to deter the population from assisting the other side. However, according to sources who have carried out extensive research on internal displacement in Colombia, paramilitary groups, which are financed by rich landowners and other monied interests, deliberately displace peasants so that their patrons can take over the peasants' land. These private interests wants to expand their own landholdings either to increase their production of cash crops, including coca (the plant used to manufacture cocaine); provide more land for their cattle; to exploit the minerals in the land; or, to buy up land destined for large-scale development projects such as a proposed new alternative to the Panama canal.

In some areas (particularly areas in which guerrillas finance their operations by taxing peasants who grow coca), displacement also results directly from the U.S.-supported drug eradication program. As part of the drug eradication program, the Colombian authorities spray vast areas with chemicals that kill not only the coca crop, but also peasants' food crops. Peasants who complain that both their source of income and their food supply are being destroyed without their being offered any alternate means to make a living are often attacked by paramilitaries, who accuse them of being guerrilla sympathizers.

One of the most worrisome aspects of the displacement in Colombia is that the government does not appear to be making any serious effort to combat the root causes of displacement. Indeed, some critics say that the government itself is partly to blame for the displacement. They say that not only does the government fail to act to curtail the activities of the paramilitaries, but that the military either turns a blind eye to the paramilitaries' operations, or, worse yet, facilitates or even actively assists their operations. The government's failure to tackle the causes of displacement not only results in continued new displacement, but also makes it virtually impossible to find permanent solutions for those who are already displaced.

USCR plans to undertake a year-long campaign to draw attention to the situation for internally displaced Colombians and to encourage U.S.-based groups and organizations to support efforts to assist them. For further information, contact Hiram A. Ruiz, USCR, (202) 347-3507, or

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