War-torn Colombia needs to reintegrate world’s highest rate of displaced citizens

Tumaco, Colombia - Children in a community of people displaced by violence during the country's 52-year conflict. (stjc-nt/Flickr)

As Colombia begins the implementation of its newly achieved peace deal, many experts have highlighted the urgent need to reintegrate millions of the country’s displaced people and refugees.

According to the latest statistics from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Colombia has the world’s highest proportion of its citizens living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) – more than 6 million individuals, or 13 percent of the national population as of the most recent estimates made last year. (Note: IDPs are technically distinguished from refugees, who are defined as those who flee across borders.)

A report released earlier this month by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) argues that the reintegration of this displaced segment of the population will be critical for the country’s successful recovery from the ravages of more than a half century of civil warfare between the Colombian government and leftist rebels known as the FARC.

“Although the peace agreement symbolizes unprecedented progress, the country has a long way to go to achieve stability,” the report says. “Addressing internal displacement will be a fundamental challenge throughout implementation of the peace deal.”

According to the report, at least half of those displaced in-country are from rural areas that have fled to slums of the largest cities. Many at-risk populations, such as indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians, disproportionately suffer the effects of conflict because they often live in territories targeted by armed groups.

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Most of those displaced are still unable to return home due to continued violence in the region. Although the FARC is already in the process of disarming, there is ongoing violence by criminal bands, other guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups in the region as they fight for the formerly FARC-controlled illicit drug trade, illegal mining sites, and rural zones.

The Guardian reported that right-wing paramilitaries have displaced nearly 1,000 people since the start of the year in the western region of Chocó, and Amnesty International has warned that paramilitaries have killed “scores of civil leaders” over the past year.

“Alarmingly, in various parts of Colombia the armed conflict is as alive as ever,” the group said in a statement.

The 52-year conflict has also driven some 340,000 Colombians outside of the country, living as refugees abroad in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, the United States and Spain. While many are formally registered with UN refugee agency, a large number of Colombia’s refugees remain unregistered and thus unable to access basic services in their host countries, according to the MPI report.

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Many of these refugees are college-educated professionals, the report says, and their reintegration should be a priority in Colombia’s development efforts.

“Although the government has developed initiatives to encourage the return of Colombian professionals, the lack of a comprehensive plan guaranteeing employment, competitive salaries, and further investment in science and research discourages the return of many,” the report says.

To reintegrate and protect Colombia’s displaced people and refugees, peacemakers have already adopted several programs and laws. One is the UNHCR and U.N. Development Program’s Transitional Solutions Initiative, which has helped displaced communities obtain housing, land and livelihoods opportunities and helped facilitate humanitarian assistance for some 38,700 people.

Still, the UNHCR says there is a need for additional measures to protect IDPs and other refugees as well as provide a space for them in the ongoing peace talks.

“UNHCR believes that a positive outcome to the negotiations will open the way for reintegration of the internally displaced and returning refugees,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters at a news briefing in Geneva last Tuesday.

“UNHCR is ready to support the Government of Colombia in its efforts to restore the rights of Colombian internally displaced people and returning refugees and address their protection and assistance needs,” he added.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com