Forced internal displacement overwhelming capacity to respond (Colombia)

Increasing numbers of Colombians are fleeing their homes in several regions of the country and continue to face serious vulnerability.


Increasing numbers of Colombians are fleeing their homes in several regions of the country and continue to face serious vulnerability. Despite greater security in urban centers and improvements in funding and the legal aspects of the government's emergency response system for new displacements, the large numbers of newly displaced people are overwhelming the capacity of the government and humanitarian agencies. Local administrations' budgets and infrastructure are facing enormous strain and the remoteness of the areas where displacements frequently occur also complicates the humanitarian response.

Proliferation of Illegal Armed Groups

As part of the Colombian government's increasingly aggressive counterinsurgent and counternarcotics policy, which is pursued with support from the United States, the national army is engaging illegal armed groups in more remote locations. This is affecting communities that are harder to access and who have had little previous interaction with the conflict. Along the river Patía in the Nariño department, for example, fighting between the Colombian army and the New Generation narco-group displaced around 250 families to Sanchez on May 8. The failure of the army to maintain its presence in Sanchez allowed the paramilitary to return days later, threatening the displaced families with having "their heads chopped off and thrown in the river" if they did not return to their communities. The river Patía is believed to be the graveyard of more than 1,000 unrecovered people assassinated in the last eight years.

A plethora of new narco-groups composed of former paramilitary personnel and common criminals are competing with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) for the control of coca cultivation, harvesting and processing areas and strategic corridors to take the coca to international markets. In some locations like Nariño, FARC and ELN have agreed to share the coca business, while in southern Córdoba, the FARC are partnering with a local paramilitary group. The illegal groups assert territorial control by engaging in acts of terror, including the use of selective assassinations in order to maintain strict control over communities.

Local Government Response Still Inadequate

Within the first 72 hours after a displacement occurs, local authorities are legally obliged to provide emergency assistance to the displaced. The response differs dramatically from department to department depending on the level of preparation, experience gained through previous displacements, and the availability of resources and political will to provide services. Local religious groups, non-governmental organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) almost always have to fill gaps left by the inadequately prepared and poorly funded local governments.

The Colombian army has also begun to provide humanitarian assistance, such as medical teams, for vulnerable communities. However, because such assistance is not impartial in nature, it is jeopardizing civilians and humanitarian operators by making them military targets.

After a number of massive displacements, the Presidential agency Acción Social, ICRC and other humanitarian agencies provided the displaced with food and other supplies. This occurred after 4,000 people fled in January 2008 to several municipalities in Arauca department and after 1,500 people sought sanctuary in Sanchez, Nariño department. But rations frequently fell short and provisions were not shipped in a timely manner. To address these difficulties the regional UN Inter Agency Standing Committee emergency working group, a coordination mechanism that has been gradually implemented by the international humanitarian community since 2007, could serve to enhance response capacity and effectiveness.
Returns Neither Safe nor Sustainable

Returning home is the most desirable option for displaced Colombians, but it is rarely a safe or sustainable option given the deteriorating security conditions across several areas of Colombia. The number of displaced who manage to return to their areas of origin is insignificant compared to the total of more than three million internally displaced Colombians. With few exceptions, initiatives for returns are generally conducted in areas still contested by illegal armed groups and located near illicit crop cultivation.

For example, in 2004, nearly 30,000 people in southern Cordoba regained their lands after years of exile. Soon after, Refugees International had interviewed villagers from Saiza, Batata and El Diamante, communities which had several members murdered and endured multiple forced displacements and suffering while being displaced. Those communities managed to return home with the support of government agencies.

However, new violence has caused renewed displacement. A member of Murmullo Medio hamlet, near Batata village, told Refugees International on June 29, "Now it is over. This is the third time I have to flee in order to save my life. I do not want to go back any more. I would rather leave the department altogether and restart my family's life elsewhere." Around 50 families from Murmullo Medio had fled to Tierra Alta during the week of June 22, following the assassination of a community leader. The assassination was the first from a death list of twelve names that was circulated by a paramilitary group, causing panic within the community. On July 20, in the town of Puerto Libertador, from which more than 500 families fled early this year, seven people were murdered, including four adolescents between 16 and 21 years old.

Government Mine Action Policies and Assistance

Landmines continue to kill and maim Colombians at an alarming rate. The country has the highest number of new mine-related casualties in the world, with more than 1,100 in 2006. In Nariño department alone, there were 38 reported civilian casualties in the first 7 months of 2008. Given Nariño's challenging terrain, many other cases go unreported as agencies cannot access remote communities and community members are unable to reach health facilities. Entire villages in Nariño have been confined and isolated after being surrounded by landmines planted by FARC or ELN, leading to increased vulnerability, as people cannot tend their fields or travel to purchase essential items like food or medicine.

In Colombia the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Mine Action coordinates demining, mine risk education and victims assistance programs. The structure is centralized in Bogota, however, leaving regional implementation of the program patchy. Coordination at the local level is limited and mine-related activities remain insufficiently funded. The comprehensive framework for assisting survivors and families, which incorporates initial medical care, psychological support, physical accompaniment, support for family members and social and economic reintegration of the victims, remains on paper and does not work. There are few funds available for comprehensive responses, so "landmine assistance" ends up being merely medical treatment at a hospital and little more.

Even more troubling, survivors of landmine accidents do not fall into the legal category of displaced people in Colombia, despite the fact that they frequently are displaced and cannot return to their homes safely. They are therefore not officially registered as internally displaced people and cannot access government services beyond immediate medical treatment.

Von: 31.07.2008,

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