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Persons Internally Displaced on Account of Violence:
A Fundamental Problem in Colombia

Gustavo Zafra Rold�n
Dean of the Faculty of Law of the Pontificial Universidad Javeriana of Bogot�, Colombia. *


The end of the cold war revealed the complexity of the problem of internally displaced persons in several areas of the globe 1 together with its political, social, economic, psychological and legal dimensions. Indeed, the vast number of persons affected throughout the world highlights the need for displaced persons to be given the same or more attention as that given to refugees in the world. The number of internally displaced persons in the world is estimated to have increased to 25-30 million, while the number of refugees fell to 14.4 million (Cohen, 1996:20). This situation, which is beginning to cause concern to the international community, is shared by a number of developing countries among which Colombia, unfortunately, occupies a prominent place.

Our aim here is to present a conceptual overview of the situation of displaced persons in Colombia, which might serve as a basis for the formulation of comprehensive short, medium and long-term policies. Much of the discussion is centered on the situation of displaced persons leaving aside that of refugees and this for three main reasons. Firstly, because unlike the situation in other countries, Colombians do not usually seek refuge in other States nor do they appeal to international bodies for protection.2 Second, because the causes behind displacement abroad are the same as those that lead to internal displacements3. Finally, because internal displacement deserves greater attention in Colombia, given the enormous socio-economic and political consequences which the phenomenon entails.4

Principal Causes and Characteristics of Internal Displacement in Colombia

The violence which has characterized the political situation in Colombia since the middle of the twentieth century has been accompanied by a parallel process of internal displacements. Armed conflict, common crime, the struggle for ownership of land, an ineffective judicial system and the absence of efficient mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes between citizens are some of the causes of violence in Colombia, which in turn, lead to internal displacement. The vast majority of civil organizations in Colombia agree that the root cause of displacement is political violence (the State versus guerrilla groups), widespread violation of human rights and the frequent lack of respect for the norms of international humanitarian law which are designed to protect the civilian population. The affected populations, for their part, testify that the actors which most frequently force them to leave their communities are the guerrillas (31.87 per cent), paramilitary groups (21.08 per cent) and the army (19.56 per cent) (Episcopal Conference of Colombia, 1995). All of them have been the active or passive victims of threats, attacks, murder and, to a lesser extent, torture, bombings, forced evacuation, fear and forcible recruitment.

The dynamic of the armed conflict in Colombia has given rise to permanent struggles to secure territorial power and to ensure the loyalty of the population (Reyes Posada, 1994, ANUC-UR, 1997). That process has fuelled numerous conflicts in areas where violence takes place between peasants and the organizations which represent them, on the one hand, and land owners, on the other. It is clear that, behind the armed conflict in which the armed forces, paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups participate, a very serious social, agrarian conflict exists which pits peasants against the country's large landowners 5. Both conflicts are going on at the same time, particularly in those areas where major commercial interests are located, such as the banana producing region of Urab�, the oil producing areas and the gold and silver mining region in the north east of Antioqu�a (Romero, 1993:87) 6

The foregoing discussion indicates that the immediate causes of internal displacement are violations of the political and civil human rights of the affected persons, the failure to ensure respect for the norms of international humanitarian law and widespread violence. As the Consultations on Displaced Persons and Refugees in the Andean Region, which were held in Lima in 1993, concluded, these causes find physical expression in the form of assassinations, massacres, forced disappearances, kidnapping, torture, bombardment, destruction of housing, illegal detention, searches without legal authority and sexual abuse of women (Vargas, 1994). This list has been supplemented by other organizations which have stressed the importance of including: (a) destruction of the environment (Raper, 1996:20); (b) anti-drug operations (Valencia, 1993:47); � agrarian counter reforms encouraged by drug traffickers through the purchase of large tracts of land; (d) militarization of the fight against narcotic drugs and the consequent violations of human rights arising from that decision; (e) the use of mines as occurred in Central America (ICRC, 1995 (a)).

The interaction of these diverse causes has given rise in Colombia to a phenomenon of displacement whose characteristics are different from those in other parts of the world. In specific terms, the modalities of displacement, the numbers of people estimated to be affected, the areas of origin and of destination of those displaced and the number of State and non-State actors involved in the problem are four of the elements that give a special character to the phenomenon of displacement in Colombia. Depending on the number of persons being displaced, the modality of displacement may include rural exoduses, the displacement of families and individual displacement. Even though each of these categories requires a different solution, only rural exoduses usually gain the attention of the authorities at the national, departmental and municipal levels.7 The other two categories, on the contrary, have a much lower profile in the country, which, in turn, means that short- and long-term solutions for these communities are postponed indefinitely. In both cases, however, the phenomenon is accepted by the large majority of Colombians as a normal occurrence in the country's contemporary history, which gives it the characteristics of an invisible problem (Vargas, 1992: 116).

Another type of categories is based on the duration of the phenomenon. According to this view, three different types of displacement may be distinguished: (a) temporary displacements caused by the actions of the parties to the armed conflict: (b) definitive displacements in which peasants do not return to their communities, preferring instead to settle in cities or in other areas; and � intermittent displacement in which peasants return and are again displaced on a number of different occasions (Romero, 1995:251).

Generally speaking, the abovementioned forms of displacement affect peasant communities. To a lesser extent, they also affect human rights activists, journalists, trade union leaders, political leaders, indigenous persons, workers on banana plantations, workers in the oil and metal mechanic industries, teachers and black communities.8

Secondly, recent efforts to quantify internal displacement in Colombia have yielded more detailed information on some of the characteristics of the phenomenon. Chief among these is the survey conducted by the Episcopal Conference of Colombia (1995), which provides various statistics, some of which are presented in Table 2.

Table 2

Numerical Characteristics of Internal Displacement in Colombia

1. Number of displaced persons (1985-1995):586,261 9

2. Number of families affected (1985-1995): 108,301

3. Composition: 58.2 women (of whom 24.6 per cent are heads of families), 72 per cent under the age of 25. 10

4. Occupation: 40.7 per cent agricultural wage earners and/or small and medium sized peasant farmers. Other categories: traders, employees, workmen, skilled tradesmen, cattle farmers, itinerant vendors and professionals.

5. Educational level: 16.05 per cent without education, 51 per cent with only primary education.

6. Humanitarian assistance before displacement: 83.3 per cent received no assistance.

7. Property: 69.32 per cent owned their own houses which they lost upon being displaced.

The figures presented in the above table are only indicative and must be interpreted with caution because of the difficulty of compiling information on displaced persons. The main problem lies in the fact that, unlike what has happened in many other countries, displaced persons in Colombia normally band themselves together into small groups of a few families or individuals (Deng, 1994:6) and discreetly in order to avoid being identified as refugees or displaced persons (Deng, 1994:6, Borgen, 1995:7).11.

The third characteristic of internal displacement in Colombia are the places of origin and of destination of displaced persons. The information contained in table 3 concerning places of origin coincides, generally speaking, with those areas in which guerrilla activity is intense and with regions which have a concentration of drug traffickers and traditional large landowners (Reyes Posada, 1994). 12 Among the areas of destination, for their part, special mention must be made of Bogot� which, over time, has become a vast magnet for displaced populations, thereby rendering the challenges of urban planning and employment even more difficult (Romero, 1993:75).

Table 3

Zones affected by displacement

Places of Origin

Places of Destination

Antioqu�a, Santander, Meta, C�rdoba, Boyac� Cauca, Bol�var, Norte de Santander, Cesar, Arauca, Magdalena, Cundinamarca, Caquet� Valle, Huilla, Sucre, Caldas, Magdalena Medio, Casanare, Arauca, Meta, Guaviare, Tolima and Huila

Mainly other rural zones or cities such as Bogot�, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and 27 additional mid-sized cities throughout the country

Source: Episcopal Conference of Colombia (1995): Reyes Posada (1994).

Finally, the high number of actors involved in the problem of displaced persons is a fourth characteristic which makes Colombia a very particular case: Nearly 20 NGO's and a similar number of State entities are directly involved in this area. This fact highlights the tremendous difficulties involved in negotiating solutions for a problem which is being increasingly politicized with serious implications for the capacity of the State to mobilize the resources needed to resolve the problem.


The Government's policy for dealing with displaced persons is based on the premise that armed conflict will continue for at least the medium term (the peace initiatives proposed by the Samper Government mention an extended period of time of up to five or seven years). Given these expectations, it must be assumed that persons will be displaced in the context of the conflict. This provides a basis for an approach to the problem that relies on ensuring compliance with the norms of international humanitarian law, to the extent that such laws provide a regulatory framework for war, particularly Article 3 of the various Geneva Agreements concerning internal conflicts.

The above clarification is essential to any understanding of the scope of an institutional policy of support for displaced persons, the scale of which problem does not permit its definitive solution, since it is clear that such a possibility is clearly dependent on a solution of the internal conflict, in other words, on a strategy for achieving peace. On the other hand, any attempt to elaborate medium- and long-term solutions to the problem of displaced persons would require a shift once again into the broader ambit of the social policies of the State, since the needs of displaced populations differ very little from those of the marginalized population of the country as a whole.

In 1994, the Executive branch elaborated a national policy to deal with the problem of displaced persons, which has been evaluated and supplemented by the active participation of NGO's, international organizations, the Catholic Church and the University, culminating in its legislative institutionalization in Law No. 387 of August 1997, and in the creation of a Presidential Advisory Board on the Problem of Displaced Persons, which has responsibility for coordinating State and private initiatives in this area.

The basic objective of the Law is to define the specific responsibility of the State for the formulation of policies and the adoption of measures for the prevention of displacement, assistance to and protection of victims as well as their socio-economic strengthening and stabilization. These activities of the State are targeted towards displaced persons as defined under the terms of the 1994 Cartagena Declaration and the Geneva Conventions of 1951 and 1967 and are carried out within the framework of a series of principles enshrined in international law and having to do with the movement of populations, such as the right of return, the right to humanitarian assistance, to family reunification, etc.

The determination of the State's responsibility acquires greater importance given the fact that the Colombian Constitution provides that a person may request the courts to ensure compliance with obligations that are laid down in the law.

It was thus for these reasons that legislation was passed establishing a National System for Comprehensive Assistance to Populations Displaced by Violence composed of a National High-Level Council for the elaboration of policy; an executing and coordinating agency, namely, the Presidential Advisory Board for Displaced Persons; and a variety of decentralized bodies at the regional and municipal levels. In principle, non-governmental organizations are part of the system but no decision has been made so far regarding the terms of their participation.

The System's activities will be guided by a National Plan, which has been elaborated on the basis of a National Information Network that seeks to address the problem of the availability of reliable data on the phenomenon of displacement.

From the methodological and operational points of view, a consensus emerged on the need to establish various phases of action during the implementation of the policies aimed at providing assistance to displaced persons. The challenge here is to find comprehensive solutions within the framework of a continuum of action that begins with the alleviation of a situation of emergency and ends with lasting development solutions. From this point of view, there are four stages in any attempt to address the problem of displaced persons:

Phase I: Prevention. The idea behind this phase is to anticipate situations which may lead to displacement. In this connection, there are those who propose the establishment of early warning systems as a preventive mechanism (Valencia, 1994 (b)).

Phase II: Humanitarian Emergency Assistance. This consists of the package of measures designed to address the immediate needs of displaced persons. Participants in this phase include the Presidential Advisory Board for Displaced Persons, the Red Cross and the Social Solidarity Network, which provide basic assistance in the areas of health and nutrition. This phase is of crucial importance in those areas where persons are temporarily located after being displaced by health emergencies caused by overcrowding, inadequate conditions of ventilation and lighting, infectious diseases, inadequate health services, etc.

Phase III: Return.13 The objective of this phase is to create a set of conditions that would enable displaced persons to begin life again in a new place or to return in conditions of security to their place of departure. In order to facilitate the implementation of this phase, a number of recommendations have been made for the repatriation of refugees whose implementation would be extremely helpful for facilitating the return of displaced persons (Forbes, 1989:20-21). A number of studies have shown that there is need to: (I) define the scope of the returns that the Colombian State and NGO's are prepared to promote, specifying in each case the size of the group, the number of returnees, the number of organizations providing assistance and the funds available for implementing returnee programmes; (ii) review the context in which displaced persons return in terms of the internal forces which may be opposed to their relocation; (iii) design mechanisms for providing the assistance needed by displaced persons and for ensuring that functions are adequately coordinated and allocated in order to avoid the duplication of efforts and inefficiencies; (iv) integrate returnee and resettlement programmes into the overall plans of the State in the area of security in such a way that they form part of the overall peace strategy; (v) put in place a system for the protection of returnees in order to prevent similar situations from occurring in future; and (vi) give special consideration to the situation of women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

Phase IV: Consolidation and Socioeconomic Stabilization. Finally, in this phase, development plans are implemented with a view to making displaced persons economically self-sufficient. What is important is that the affected persons should be participants in individual, family or collective economic initiatives, depending on their displacement profile. Such initiatives should stress self-management and may include community-based projects and community-owned microenterprises (Duque, 1993:182).

Many of these solutions were taken into account in seeking solutions to the problem of displaced persons in the region of Central America. These solutions, which have been comprehensively analyzed in the specialized literature,14 offer a number of lessons which may also be of value to Colombia. There are, however, two fundamental differences which distinguish the cases of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala from the situation in Colombia. Firstly, the Colombian case so far is only now beginning to receive international attention which, in its own time, the Central American situation had received; secondly, the Colombian situation has not been impacted by the involvement of a hegemonic power with well-defined interests, such as those which the United States had in Central America. Indeed, in the case of Colombia, the international presence is minimal except for the representatives of the International Red Cross, the agencies of the United Nations system, particularly the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (with all the limitations which the mandate of that Office imposes) and the activities of the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), to which foreign Governments channel certain forms of assistance. Moreover, the activities of international organizations with headquarters in Bogot�, such as the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNIDCP), UNICEF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the OAS, and others, steer clear of involvement in the problem of internal displacements in Colombia (Deng, 1994:28). Secondly, Colombia does not have as many cases of refugees as Central America had in the 1980's. The number of Central Americans who had been forced to migrate reached two million people, many of whom found refuge in Costa Rica.15.

These two characteristics mean that it is impossible to exactly replicate in Colombia the programmes that were implemented in Central America. However, due account should be taken of what has been achieved through the Development Programme for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Returnees (PRODERE) in finding solutions to the problem of displaced persons (Deng, 1994:35).

Obstacles Posed by the Armed Conflict

Perhaps the most significant obstacle facing the policy of assistance to displaced persons is found in those localities in which armed conflict is taking place. The possibilities of preventing displacement, providing humanitarian assistance and protecting displaced persons are limited by the difficulties which the competent authorities experience when attempting to take action. In many instances, the authorities are threatened by the participants to the conflict and, in some situations, are even linked extra-officially to them.

This situation requires innovative juridical solutions that would help overcome the limitations of the institutional legal system. And here, emphasis should be placed on those institutions which have the ability to intervene in the conflict as neutral third parties, either within the national framework through the Office of the Public Prosecutor (Attorney-General of the Republic and Public Defender) and the Catholic Church; or through international organizations, a role which is being played with increasingly greater impact by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

An initiative that follows similar lines, but which has had less success and acceptance, is the possibility now being considered of establishing humanitarian zones of d�tente in which the security of the civilian population caught up in the conflict would be guaranteed. The experiences of other nations and the few attempts made within Colombia have shown the risks to which civilian populations are exposed in situations where not all actors to the conflict share the same commitment to this objective and where the neutrality of civilians is in question. Nevertheless, this strategy remains one which in the future should be given further consideration and further refined, especially where such zones of d�tente have been considered as possible mechanisms for facilitating the dialogue between the Colombian Government and the insurgent groups (according to the report of the Explorers of the Peace Process in Colombia, which was circulated in September of this year).

The Colombian society is not very familiar with the mechanism of zones of d�tente. On the only occasion on which the idea was presented, it provoked extensive debate. In this connection, therefore, the international experience of the countries present in the Conference will be extremely valuable.

* This paper is based on research carried out by Drs. Rafael Nieto Navia, Roberto Vidal Y Andr�s Franco of the Faculty of Law of the Pontificial Universidad Javeriana for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The final version was prepared by Dr. Roberto Vidal.

1 The type of displacement considered in this report is displacement for political reasons. For all intents and purposes, economic migrations are excluded when these are the result of failure to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights (Rojas, 1993:20) as are other types of migrations caused by crop cycles.

2 Displacements are normally internal, except for a few reported cases of Colombians who sought refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela. The situation of the latter may be consulted in Kirk, 1993:22-23.

3 The similarity of causes throughout history is not exclusive to Colombia. The common denominator is that refugees and displaced persons go in search of security for different political, ethnic, religious or economic reasons.

4 Some of these consequences are "the depopulation of agricultural zones, the disordered growth of cities and the expansion of marginal and urban zones, the decline in production and consequent increases in prices, the reconfiguration of land ownership (...), the additional costs arising from the definitive relocation of public employees (...)" (Colombian Episcopal Conference, 1995:75-82), modifications to the electoral map, the increase in abstentionism, the violation of the rights of participation, freedom of expression, freedom of election, assembly and movement (Episcopal Conference of Colombia, 1995:75-82, 77), and the creation of psycho-social problems (Casta�o y L�pez, 1994).

5 In the recent case of the Bellacruz Plantation in the municipality of Pelaya, Cesar, for example, the delays of INCORA in adjudicating and awarding title to vacant lots which had been acquired was mentioned on several occasions by peasant organizations as one of the causes of confrontation with landowners. The latter had requested the revocation of decisions as a means of gaining official recognition of their ownership of land on which peasant communities were living (ANUC-UR, 1996-1997).

6 Multinational corporations operate in many of these zones and these are accused by the national and international communications media of having contacts with insurgent groups. Even though this allegation has not been officially proven by the competent State agencies, it is important for Colombia to create conditions of social responsibility so that foreign corporations would cooperate in the prevention of displacement.

7 This is reflected in the many commitments entered into between the national Government and representatives of the peasant groups which were displaced in these circumstances.

8 Generally speaking, judges, educators and priests receive help through the Higher Council of the Judicature, the Ministry of Education and the Church, respectively; the others, unfortunately, are displaced without any certainty as to what would be their destiny or fate.

9 According to the World Refugees Survey (1996), it is estimated that in Colombia there are approximately 600,000 displaced persons, a figure that is lower than that for countries like Sudan (4 million) Turkey (2 million), Angola (1,500,000), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1,300,000), Iraq (1 million), Liberia (1 million), Sierra Leone (1 million), Sri Lanka (850,000), Azerbaijan (670,000) and Burma (500,000 to 1,000,000). Other countries with refugee populations similar in size to that of Colombia are Afghanistan, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Peru and Lebanon.

10 The Public Defender (1996) reported that in the case of tenants who had been displaced by violence in the municipality of Pelaya, Cesar, for example, 38 of the 106 persons were children. He also stated that the number of women who had been displaced was largely due to the role of heads of household which they were forced to assume from the time that they were mobilized in the national territory.

11 Even though this is not the case in Colombia, this type of measurement may be even more difficult when the official policy of the State is to ignore the existence of the problem of displaced persons.

12 Alejandro Reyes Posada (1994) divides the regions of political violence in Colombia into eight large agrarian zones: the northwest of the Caribbean region (Urab�, C�rdoba, Sucre); the vicinity of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Magadalena and Cesar); the Catatumbo and Perij� (north of Santander); the Mid-Magadalena region (Bol�var, Santander, Antioqu�a, Caldas and Boyac�); north of the Orinoco region (Arauca and Casanare), the Ariari-Guayabero-Guaviare (Meta and Guaviare); the Amazon region (Caquet� and Putumayo) and the southwest region (Valle, Cauca, Huila and Tolima). According to this author, disputes over land are rife in all of these areas.

13 In the particular case of Colombia, the resettlement or return phase is the one which presents the greatest difficulties because of the disorder and lack of coordination that characterize programmes that are designed to satisfy the needs that exist in this area. Resettlement programmes are implemented with the assistance of the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA) and relies upon the identification of vacant land. The approach followed is that the State agency would survey and demarcate the plots before awarding them to displaced peasant communities. Its work, however, is made difficult because of the lack of protection against constant threats by armed groups who are opposed to the distribution of these lands. The situation is compounded by the bureaucratic difficulties encountered in preparing valuation surveys and in purchasing land in cases where there are no vacant plots.

14 For more on this subject, you may consult in particular, among others, Sollis (1992), Ortega (1991), Asociaci�n para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Gautemala (1990), General Accounting Office (1989), Fagen (1986) and (1984), Enriquez (1995), Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Central America (1994), Council of Institutions of Guatemala (1993), Yundt (1989) and Montes (1986).

15 The repatriation programmes were sponsored by Guatemala in 1986 when the Special Commission for Assistance to Returnees was established. In addition, the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) was held in 1989.

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