The Effects of Internal Displacement on Host Communities

Clara Inés Atehortúa Arredondo, Jorge Salcedo, and
Jorge Salcedo Politólogo, investigador, asesor de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación, estudiante doctoral de la Universidad del Rosario en Bogota D.C., Colombia.
Roberto Carlos Vidal López

October 1, 2011


During the many years of conflict in Colombia, internal displacement has been dominated by movements of populations from rural areas, smaller cities and towns across the country to large cities, particularly to the capital city, Bogotá. Upon arrival, displaced persons typically reside in peripheral and poor areas of these urban centers.

This study was based on focus groups composed of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities in the localities of Suba and Ciudad Bolívar in Bogotá, which both have large IDP populations, as well as interviews with state officials and members of aid and outreach organizations working in the area.

Suba and Ciudad Bolívar lie on the outskirts of Bogotá and were consolidated as parts of the city over the last 20 years through a process of spontaneous and unregulated urbanization. As such, there has been no urban planning and limited access to public services. The majority of inhabitants in these areas are internally displaced persons from all parts of the country who fled violence, as well as some economic migrants.

In this study, the term ‘host communities’ refers to individuals who have lived in Suba and Ciudad Bolívar for more than ten years. Although many in the host community were at one point forcibly displaced as well, the term ‘internally displaced persons’ –according to local usage and adopted in this study–only refers to those who were forcibly displaced to these areas in the past decade. Besides more recent arrival, another distinction between the populations is that the IDP community has received government assistance through the system established under Colombia’s law on internal displacement, Law 387 of 1997.

Institutional Relationships
Despite its limitations and problems, the state system of support for internally displaced persons is essential to their survival. All of the IDPs with whom the researchers spoke had received some sort of assistance. Nonetheless, it was also clear that state benefits are insufficient and temporary. Although IDPs have typically been displaced for long periods of time, they receive assistance only for the short term or, at most, the medium term.

The relationship between the national, municipal and local systems of assistance to displaced persons is extremely important in terms of the overall delivery of assistance to displaced persons. Suba relies more heavily on the national system of assistance to IDPs, whereas in Ciudad Bolívar the system is aided to a larger extent by local initiatives. The difference in approach stems from the issue of forced displacement being more prominently placed on the local public agenda in Ciudad Bolívar than in Suba.

The state accords minors preferential access to public services including primary and secondary education and healthcare. In the capital, there is almost universal access to public education. Nevertheless, these rights are not fully fulfilled for IDP children. For certain age groups the barrier to accessing education is schools located in dangerous neighborhoods. In terms of access to healthcare, the researchers found significant limitations in IDPs’ ability to obtain medical treatment.

In addition, IDPs are characterized by lower levels of political participation in comparison to members of the host community, who have better established political networks. However, IDPs have begun to advocate for their rights through IDP organizations as well. Some of the most active organizations are run by Afro-Colombian IDPs, which carry out important activities in their communities. Importantly, IDPs have also gained political influence through legal action with considerable success at the Constitutional Court in particular.

Non-governmental social organizations are also an important source of assistance to displaced persons. The role of the Catholic Church is of particular note for leading many support and protection activities for the IDPs in their parishes.

Economic Relationships
The main problem IDPs face in securing economic stability in poor urban areas is obtaining a regular source of income. Access to the formal labor market is quite limited, particularly for IDPs. They typically only have occasional and temporary access to jobs in construction or domestic service. Participating in the formal work sector and social security system renders registered IDPs ineligible for state assistance offered to IDPs, which is another important consideration they must take into account when seeking employment.

Both IDPs and a significant proportion of the host community obtain what unsteady income they generate through the informal employment sector. State support for income generation enables IDPs to establish small, informal businesses. However, while providing them with income in the short term, these informal efforts in entrepreneurship are not reliable sources of income in the medium and long term due to the difficulty of sustaining the projects.

The growing demand for housing in urban spaces and rising prices render home ownership difficult for everyone in Suba and Ciudad Bolívar. This has led to an increased demand for rental housing that increases even further with each influx of displaced persons. By using state rental subsidies–which are temporary and intermittent–to rent houses or rooms in the homes of host community members, IDPs often find themselves in a complex economic relationship with host communities.

Host community members who own their homes often build additions to rent to IDPs as additional sources of income. The fact that the income of IDPs is often unstable and that there are often cultural differences between IDPs and their hosts means that the landlord-tenant relationship is one often characterized by conflict.

Relations between Internally Displaced Persons and Host Communities
Both internally displaced persons and host communities on the outskirts of Bogotá in Suba and Ciudad Bolívar live in poverty, but under different conditions. The host communities enjoy greater access to housing, services and work in both the formal and informal sectors. In contrast, displaced families are largely disadvantaged due to their lack of social networks, their dependence on state assistance and their difficulty in accessing formal and informal labor markets.

In the locations studied, the host communities single out IDPs based on their recent arrival to the neighborhood, where in Colombia they have arrived from and their access to state assistance.

Relations between host communities and displaced persons are complex. When IDPs first arrive there is often an expression of solidarity and support as friends or family members help them to get settled. But such good will is often short-lived due to the limited resources of the host community.

In general, IDPs are often treated with hostility by the general public. They may be viewed with fear, subjected to persecution for being displaced and blamed for increased crime rates. Cultural, regional and ethnic differences often produce conflicts between the two communities and become excuses for racism and discrimination in daily life, such as in the workplace and in the landlord-tenant relationship. Furthermore, host communities often do not understand the state assistance programs for IDPs. This can lead to hostility toward IDPs and unsubstantiated accusations regarding IDPs’ supposed inability to use state assistance effectively, organize themselves or overcome their present situation.


The recommendations, which begin on page 27, focus on the following areas:

  • Standardizing the urbanization process. 
  • Generating a supply of public housing for IDPs.
  • Supporting family and neighbor networks.
  • Raising the level of awareness of the host community about IDPs.
  • Maintaining and deepening the state’s assistance programs for IDPs in accord with the existing legal and constitutional framework.
  • Reviewing policies of assistance to the displaced with a long-term perspective.
  • Implementing the joint responsibility of the national government and its municipalities.
  • Providing on-going training for officials.
  • Promoting and protecting the political participation and representation of IDPs.
  • Maintaining the involvement of international and non-governmental organizations through actions which bring together host communities and IDPs.
  • Training IDPs for jobs in the formal sector.

Generating permanent long-term income for IDPs as well as enhancing their connection to the economy’s formal work sector.