No Refuge: Colombia’s IDP Protection Vacuum

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli Senior Associate for Colombia and Haiti, Washington Office on Latin America

June 3, 2003

The inability of the government of Colombia to protect its citizens poses a grave security risk for large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), their leaders, and individuals who work on their behalf. Dr. Francis M. Deng, Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons has said, “Colombia is paradoxical – on the one hand it has produced legislation that is quite liberal and makes the government appear to be very responsive with a normative and institutional framework, and yet the problem continues and worsens.” Factors contributing to the deterioration of the situation include: a) increased conflict and violations of human rights and humanitarian law since peace talks between the government and the FARC guerillas broke down in February 2002; b) an increase in terror tactics and indiscriminate attacks by the FARC; c) more frequent use of displacement as a weapon of war by paramilitaries and guerillas; d) limited enforcement of Law 387 of 1997 that provides comprehensive coverage of the protection and assistance needs of the displaced; and e) lack of effective response by authorities to early warning indicators.

The government of Colombia has not made displacement a matter of priority in national policy, but it has shown a willingness to accept international advice and assistance on how to address the needs of the displaced. It has hosted visits of Dr. Deng under two administrations (1994 and 1999), accepted the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the first international standards of protection and assistance for IDPs, and taken important steps to develop legal and institutional frameworks for the displaced.

NGOs and IDP groups are concerned that actions by the Uribe Administration are eroding protection for the displaced. Measures cited as particularly worrisome include the recruitment of peasant soldiers and the development of an informant network of one million civilians. These programs further blur the distinction between combatants and civilians, thus increasing the vulnerability of IDPs who often flee without documents. Additionally, a proposed series of measures could dilute and eliminate mechanisms and institutions, such as local human rights offices, that protect the rights of the displaced.

Government funds allocated to IDP programs are insufficient and do not adequately reach the local level. Colombia relies heavily on the international community and non-governmental organizations to meet IDP needs. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) reports, “The Government itself acknowledged that the ICRC and various NGOs provided 70 to 80 percent of humanitarian assistance received by the displaced.” Nor does the government adequately combat activities of paramilitaries that adversely affect civilians. Article 284 of Law 589 of 2000 makes forced displacement a crime, but no one has been brought to justice.

Although there is no consensus on the number of IDPs in Colombia, with estimates ranging from over a million to 2.9 million, there is agreement that the problem is getting worse. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), 2002 was the worst year of displacement since 1985, with an estimated 1,141 persons displaced each day. IDPs increasingly seek refuge in and around the major cities. They flee again within urban centers to escape armed urban groups and violent crime. Stigmatized, they live invisibly, without adequate security, long-term assistance, proper shelter, and viable options for resolving their displacement.

Increasingly, Colombians are forced to find protection along and across Colombia’s borders with Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. According to CODHES, since 2000, an estimated 49,545 Colombians have crossed international borders, yet many fail to obtain refugee status. Armed actions in these areas, such as the January attacks by Colombian paramilitaries in the Darien region of Panama and the March bombing by Venezuela of paramilitary positions in Colombia, highlight the danger faced by IDPs who flee along or across these borders.

Despite the risks, some IDPs have chosen to speak out and have organized themselves into more than 60 groups. They highlight that displacement disproportionately impacts minorities. One third of the IDPs are thought to be of Afro-Colombian and of indigenous descent. A CODHES report on displacement in Chocó found that the rate of displacement of Afro-Colombians is 20 percent higher than the rest of the country as armed actors displace inhabitants for control of resource rich areas. According to Marino Cordoba of the Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians, “the current government?s inability to protect Afro-Colombians from and during displacement has had a devastating impact on the social fabric of this ethnic group.” UNHCR has expressed grave concern over the impact of the conflict on indigenous peoples, including “forced displacement and reports of rape.”

The government has been promoting returns as the primary solution to the displacement crisis. Some observers say that UN agencies like UNHCR are not advocating forcefully enough that the government guarantee protection in areas of return. IDP youth reportedly fear return to these areas because of potential forced recruitment by armed actors. NGOs are uncertain about whether to assist IDP returns under these conditions. Landmines also pose a protection problem that must be addressed. DOS reports “thousands of IDPs were unable to return to their homes [in 2002] because of the presence of antipersonnel landmines.”

The UN has employed a 12-agency “collaborative approach” to address IDP concerns and fill gaps in the government’s response, including the UNHCR-led and OCHA-supported Thematic Group on Displacement (TGD). In 2002, the Group launched a Humanitarian Action Plan, which focuses on prevention, protection and the socio-economic integration of IDPs. To achieve its aims, the UN doubled its budget goal to $79.4 million, but according to OCHA, $48.9 million was still unfunded as of February 2003.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • The plight of IDPs be made a matter of national priority in Colombia. A senior official should be appointed the focal point on internal displacement to liaise with international organizations, NGOs, and IDP groups.
  • The government implement recommendations made by the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons in his 2000 report and those made by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its February 2003 report, including activation of the Early Warning System and establishment of Ombudsman and Procurator-General Offices in areas where they are not represented.
  • The government ensure returns are voluntary and safe and with full IDP participation in the planning process.
  • UNHCR promote protection more vigorously, especially in urban and return areas.
  • The Uribe Administration extend an invitation to the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons for a follow up visit.
  • The Thematic Group on Displacement initiate dialogue with Colombian authorities on how to better protect and assist IDPs living in areas controlled by non-state actors.