Don’t overlook Colombia’s humanitarian crisis

Francis M. Deng

The more than 1 million people internally displaced in Colombia ought to be hard to ignore. They are desperately in need of food, medicine, shelter, and basic safety. Yet most international efforts and resources center on combating narco-trafficking and largely overlook providing help to the fourth-largest internally displaced population in the world.

In 1998 alone, more than 300,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced—eight families every hour—and the numbers mount daily. Most of those who seek asylum in neighboring countries are sent back.

For three weeks in August, some 80 internally displaced persons in sheer desperation occupied UN offices in Bogotá, seeking a more effective response from their government.

In Colombia, civilians are deliberately displaced as a strategy of war by paramilitary forces, guerrilla groups, and at times government troops. They are targeted because of their suspected sympathies or collaboration with one or another side, and they are attacked with such severity they have no choice but to flee. Displacement is also a tool for acquiring land for the benefit of large-scale landowners (3 percent of whom reportedly control more than 70 percent of the arable land in the country), drug traffickers, and in some cases, multinational corporations. Most cases of forced displacement are reported to be the work of paramilitary groups.

Threats to the physical security of the desplazados—displaced—often follow them into the communities where they seek refuge. The very fact of having fled heightens suspicions of their allegiances and intensifies their risk of being targeted. As a result, many try to blend anonymously into communities of urban poor. But without proper documents and means of supporting themselves, they face discrimination in their attempts to access public services. And those trying to help them—human rights and humanitarian workers, lawyers, journalists, and political leaders—receive threats themselves and are sometimes abducted and murdered.

Since 1994, when I first visited Colombia, the government has enacted legislation and created institutional frameworks intended to help the displaced. But the laws are not implemented, the displaced receive little or no protection, and only an estimated 20 percent in 1997 received a combination of food aid, housing, and health care. Only 15 percent of displaced children are reported in school, in part because the parents cannot pay for books and uniforms and lack documentation.

During my visit to Colombia last May, it was clear to me that one important way the government could remedy this would be to do away with the unreasonable rules governing the "certification" process. Under this system, the displaced who have lost their documents must return to their areas of origin for the approval needed to claim benefits. But this involves risking their lives, a clear violation of international law, and many displaced as a result remain without documents and benefits.

Donor governments, for their part, should urge the Colombian government to take effective measures to ensure the physical security and material well-being of its displaced populations. And they should press for government agreement to greater access for international organizations to displaced populations.

Complementing such efforts, international organizations must increase their presence in the country, especially in areas outside the capital. To be sure, this strategy is not without risk, but the presence of international personnel, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Peace Brigades International, has served to provide protection to civilians at risk in outlying areas.

It would be valuable if the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the High Commissioner for Human Rights could increase their field staff, and both international and nongovernmental organizations could expand their presence and programs. Colombia is in the midst of a humanitarian emergency. International support is imperative.