While the nearly 12 million Syrians displaced are the most in the world, the second most come from a country where the situation is vastly different from Syria’s bloody four-year conflict: Colombia.
According to figures released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 6.4 million Colombians were recorded as displaced, refugees, asylum seekers, or “others of concern” at the end of 2014.
Colombia’s 6.4 million displaced make up 96% of the total number displaced in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Colombia Reports. More than a quarter of Colombia’s indigenous population has been displaced, as well.
And the number could be much higher, as many displaced Colombians have been threatened to prevent them from registering their situation with authorities, UNHCR representative in Colombia Martin Gottwald said in an interview with EFE last month.
The widespread displacement people in Colombia is due largely to the country’s half-century-long civil war, a conflict that grew out of clashes over land and political rights and eventually became intertwined with the drug war that has raged throughout the region.
Colombia’s conflict deaths have declined from a peak in the early 2000s, though killings continue.
Since the early 1960s, left-wing guerrillas, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and later the National Liberation Army (ELN), have fought the Colombian government and government-aligned right-wing paramilitaries — many of them under the banner of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between the early ’90s and mid-2000s.
Protracted violence and the entry of armed groups into drug cultivation and trafficking forced many Colombians out of their homes.
‘It is not only FARC that are causing forced displacements’
Displacement also has a local dimension, “with the causes and groups responsible changing from region to region,” said James Bosworth, the director of analysis at Southern Pulse, an advisory firm focused on the region. “Anything increasing the level of conflict in a region, whether it was the FARC, paramilitary groups or government action, can lead to people feeling threatened and forced to leave their homes.”
Renewed military pressure from the Colombian government — supported by the US through Plan Colombia — reduced the FARC’s effectiveness in the early 2000s. Moreover, demobilization agreements in the mid-2000s diminished the AUC’s presence. However, criminal groups soon replaced them and have exacerbated the displacement problem.
“It is not only (the guerrillas of) FARC that are causing forced displacements,”saidGottwald. “At least 40% of the violations of human rights are committed by new groups of armed irregulars,” — groupsformed by AUC membersafter their original demobilization in 2006.
The number of displaced in Colombia only dropped below 250,000 for three years between 1997 and 2013, according to Colombian human-rights organisation Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES.) UNHCR data shows the country has been in the top-20 for number of displaced eight times since 2006.
Alongside dangerous and opaque criminal groups, the FARC remains a potent fighting force; one that the Colombian government is negotiating with in order to end hostilities and, hopefully, the displacement of Colombians.
‘People are not going to return to their homes without guarantees’
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos initiated peace talks with the rebels in late 2012. The two sides have struck some accords on political participation, an end to the FARC’s drug operations, and, crucially, rural reform.
Rural reforms and land rights are “a key area of dispute for criminal groups and a source of corruption in some regions of Colombia. It is possible that some of the land reform efforts stemming from the peace agreement would help move this process along for displaced populations,” said Bosworth.
However, the negotiations have been stuck on the current issue — justice for perpetrators and reparations for victims — for over a year.
Recently, three-quarters of Colombians reportedly believed no peace deal would ever be signed, a worrying sign, as any agreement must be approved by Colombians in a referendum.
A unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC was called off by the group in May, after government forces killed 26 rebels in an airstrike that came in response to a FARC ambush that killed 11 soldiers in April.
On Wednesday the rebel group announced a new, one-month ceasefire, set to begin on July 20.
While the renewed violence alone promises more destruction and displacement, new tactics the FARC has undertaken have spread the hardship to broad segments of the population.
In late June, FARC rebels in southwestern Narino department blew up oil pipelines and allowed more than 400,000 gallons of crude to spill into rivers and waterways. It was “an incalculable tragedy, the worst environmental and social damage done in the past 10 years,” according to Environmental Minister Gabriel Vallejo.
The result was an “unprecedented social-environmental crisis,” said Fabrizio Hochschild, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the country. The 200,000 people living in and around the city of Tumaco, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, would “… suffer health complications, including respiratory and skin problems,” Hochschild reported.
The spike in violence has led Doctors Without Borders to declare a humanitarian crisis in Colombia’s southwest, where 75% of the 525 attacks in May and June took place.
While recent FARC attacks have been occurred mainly in the southwest and northeast of the country, they are likely to only add to the number of displaced — a group Gottwald believes the government has failed to help. “[They] have not done what is sufficient to reintegrate these people,” he said.
“People are not going to return to their homes without guarantees that … the threat of violence has gone away and they can begin to rebuild their lives,” Bosworth told Business Insider in an email.
“Providing security, property rights, government services and economically viable lifestyles in rural areas will be essential to helping the displaced return home or resettle in a dignified manner,” he added.
Gottwald noted that the government’s recently approved national development plan focuses on rural areas were guerrilla and criminal groups operate, instead of funelling resources to the marginalized areas of 25 Colombian cities where, according to UN data, more than 50% of displaced people settle.
If these shortcomings were not resolved, he said, Colombia “must contemplate the risk that peace will not be secured.”
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