Colombian internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, and persons in refugee-like circumstances comprised a population of nearly 3 million people uprooted by conflict, political violence, and human rights violations in Colombia.
An estimated 2.5 million Colombians were internally displaced at the end of 2002, including about 320,000 who became displaced during the year.
More than 325,000 Colombians were living abroad in refugee-like circumstances, including at least 150,000 in the United States, about 75,000 in Ecuador, an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 in Venezuela, some 20,000 to 50,000 in Costa Rica, and more than 20,000 in Panama.
In addition, some 58,800 Colombians were granted formal refugee status abroad in 2002 or were in formal proceedings for it at year's end. The Colombian refugee population in neighboring countries included about 9,000 in Ecuador, 7,500 in Costa Rica, about 1,000 each in Panama and Venezuela. In the United States, 17,800 Colombians applied for asylum during the year; U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) counts as refugees the approximately 24,100 Colombians who were either granted asylum in 2002 (4,800) or had asylum claims pending at year's end (19,300). In Canada, some 4,200 Colombians were in need of protection, including about 1,100 granted refugee status during the year and 3,100 whose asylum claims were pending at year's end. More than 12,000 Colombians applied for asylum in European countries, Australia, and New Zealand during the year: the largest numbers in Spain (1,100) and the United Kingdom (400).
Colombia hosted 205 recognized refugees, the largest numbers from Nicaragua (78), Hungary (28), and Cuba (21). Asylum seekers arriving in Colombia must lodge asylum claims within 60 days of entry. The Colombian government carries out refugee status determinations, but during 2002 it newly recognized only one refugee and rejected six applications. The Colombian government reports that it grants rejected asylum seekers a 30-day stay of deportation to enable them to petition for another migratory status or to find another country willing to accept them. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees in Colombia enjoy the rights accorded by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. During the year, Colombia offered citizenship to two former refugees, both from Iran.
Conflict and Displacement: Background
Although Colombia has experienced virtually non-stop conflict for more than 50 years, the present phase of the fighting – and the displacement associated with it – dates from the mid-1980s. The parties to the conflict include left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary organizations, and the Colombian armed forces. Narcotraffickers, gangs, and other criminal elements also contribute to the country's widespread violence. In Medellin alone, there are an estimated 400 gangs with 10,000 members.
The Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) are Marxist and seek to overthrow the government and establish socialism in Colombia. FARC and ELN guerrillas kill or threaten local officials, civic leaders, and business owners whom they perceive to be opposing them, causing civilians to flee. The 17,000-member FARC funds its insurgency through kidnapping and by taxing wealthy individuals, businesses, and coca growers and narco-traffickers in areas under its control. Much-anticipated peace talks between the government and FARC that began in January 1999 collapsed in early 2002.
The United "Self-Defense" Groups of Colombia ("Autodefensas" Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), is an umbrella organization that encompasses most of the paramilitary groups that operate in Colombia. Its stated objective is to rid Colombia of the guerrillas, but the organization has many other interests. According to Colombia's Ministry of Defense, "in many places, narco-traffickers interested in expanding their rural properties have armed and utilized rural self-defense [paramilitary] groups not only to eradicate the guerrillas from certain areas, but also to expel other land owners ... with the aim of appropriating their lands." The U.S. State Department describes the AUC as a "mercenary vigilante force financed by criminal activities." The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) has charged that there is "active or passive participation of government forces" in many of the crimes committed by the paramilitaries, a charge repeated by many other local and international human rights groups. Since 1995, the AUC has been responsible for most of the killing and forced displacement of civilians in Colombia. It has tripled in size since 1988 and reportedly has as many as 15,000 fighters.
In 2002, although paramilitaries continued to cause more displacement than guerrillas, displacement due to people's fears of forced recruitment of children by guerrilla groups increased. Some 7,000 of the 33,000 members of guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia are estimated to be children, some as young as ten years old. Most join these groups to escape poverty or to avenge the killing of family members, although guerrilla and paramilitary groups also forcibly recruit many children. According to the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 18 percent of child combatants in Colombia have killed at least once.
More than 25 percent of all displacement in 2002 consisted of groups of ten or more families – often the population of entire villages – fleeing together, frequently following massacres in their villages.
Developments in 2002
The year began with President Pastrana breaking off peace talks with the FARC on January 9 and telling the FARC to remove its fighters from a "demilitarized zone" (Zona de Despeje) that the government of Colombia created in 1999 as part of an agreement with the FARC that had led to the peace talks. The following week, foreign ambassadors mediating the talks obtained an agreement from both sides to continue the talks, and the government agreed to extend the zone until April 7. However, following increased violence in late January and February, Pastrana again told the FARC to vacate the zone and massed government troops along the zone's borders. On February 20, the FARC abandoned the zone and the Colombian military reassumed control of the area. Just days later, on the day that Pastrana paid his first visit to the zone, the FARC kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who remained in FARC hands throughout the year.
In March, congressional elections were held with heavy military security. Rejecting both main parties (Conservative and Liberal), voters elected a majority of independents, an estimated 35 percent of them supporters of the AUC and/or of right-wing presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Vélez.
On March 16, the archbishop of Cali was assassinated, presumably by drug gangs. The archbishop had accused drug gangs of financing candidates in the congressional elections.
In late April, local leaders and clergy warned the government of an impending paramilitary attack in the FARC-controlled Bojaya region of Choco Department. The government did not provide the population any protection, however. On May 2, the AUC attacked the town of Bellavista. During the fighting, the FARC fired a mortar that landed in a church, killing 119 people – 48 of them children – who had sought refuge there. An investigation by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed that the government ignored the local population's warnings and found that government forces permitted the paramilitaries to pass undisturbed into the Bojaya region. Following the attack, some 5,700 people fled Bojaya and became displaced. A group of about 1,000 of the displaced returned to their homes in September. UNHCR, the government agency for the displaced, UNICEF, and various local organizations assisted the returnees.
In the run-up to the May 26 presidential elections, the FARC unleashed a wave of violence nationwide. Uribe received a majority of the votes (53 percent) and was elected president. During his campaign, Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in 1983, promised to get tough with the insurgents and bring security to the country. Uribe recruited as his presidential campaign's military adviser former general Rito Alejo del Rio, who has been investigated by the Colombian government for alleged links to paramilitary groups.
In July, the AUC said that it was disbanding as a national-level organization and dividing into seven regional blocks, each with its own leader. The breakup was reportedly over drug profits, which according to Colombia's ambassador to the United States account for 75 percent of the AUC's funding. The breakup proved short-lived, however. Within weeks, the AUC appeared to resolve the internal disputes and regrouped at the national level.
That same month, following threats from the FARC, more than 200 mayors throughout the country resigned their posts.
On July 31, the FARC forced more than 1,000 residents of Puerto Alvira to abandon their town and accompany rebels into the jungle. The FARC claimed that it was to protect the civilians from impending attack by the armed forces or paramilitaries, but the government accused the guerrillas of using the townspeople as human shields. Two days before Uribe's inauguration, fighting between FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries near Valencia killed 40 and displaced another 3,000 persons.
On August 7, the day of Uribe's inauguration, the FARC carried out a mortar attack in central Bogota that killed 14 people.
Within days of taking office, Uribe also declared a "State of Internal Disturbance" for 90 days (extended in November for a second 90-day period) that permitted the government to carry out generalized arrests, tap telephones, and restrict civilians' right to movement. He also announced a new emergency war tax aimed at raising $778 million to pay for 3,000 new soldiers and 10,000 additional policemen. Seeking continued U.S. assistance, Uribe flew to Washington in late September to meet with President Bush and Defense Department officials
Uribe also proposed creating a militia of one million civilians who the government would provide with radios so that they could act as informants for the military. Uribe also proposed arming and training some 15,000 villagers to defend their villages.
In the weeks after the inauguration, violence and displacement soared. Hundreds died and thousands were displaced. In Cucuta, a mid-size city near Colombia's border with Venezuela, the World Food Program (WFP) registered 16,000 newly displaced persons.
On November 29, following secret talks with the government, the AUC declared a temporary, unilateral cease-fire that began December 1. Not all of the AUC's member groups agreed to go along with the cease-fire, however.
Internally Displaced Persons
Many of Colombia's 2.5 million displaced citizens endure severe hardship, receive little assistance, and, according to UNHCR, live in "a situation of acute vulnerability." The situation of internal displacement in Colombia is one of the worst in the world.
Most displaced Colombians seek refuge in the country's largest cities, where they compete with the local poor for limited jobs and services. Some 400,000 displaced persons live in and around Bogota alone. Nearly 50 percent of the displaced are unemployed, and those who find work usually obtain only poorly paid day labor. Many of the displaced also work in the informal economy, peddling fruits and vegetables, cigarettes, or other products. Only about a third of displaced Colombians have access to the health care that is available to other citizens and, according to the Colombia's human rights ombudsman, only 15 percent of displaced children attend school.
A disproportionate number of displaced persons – more than a third – are Afro-Colombians and indigenous, who make up only 18 percent of the population.
The government has promulgated laws and guidelines for the protection and assistance to displaced persons that conform to the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement – but implementation is poor.
The government also does little to protect civilians from being forcibly displaced (its failure to send troops to protect the threatened residents of Bellavista was just one of many examples). A November 2002 report by two Colombian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), CCJ and Mencoldes, noted that the government of Colombia "has not taken effective measures to prevent forced displacement."
Since 1999, the Social Solidarity Network (Red de Solidaridad Social, or Red), a national public entity directly under the administration of the Colombian president, has been responsible for aid to internally displaced Colombians. The Red has improved provision of temporary assistance to newly displaced persons, but still does little to help the displaced achieve self-sufficiency or integrate where they are. According to UNHCR, assisting the displaced "still does not have a prominent position in the [Colombian government's] political and social agenda." Even the government recognizes that local and international NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and UN agencies provide 80 percent of the assistance that displaced Colombians receive.
UNHCR provides the Colombian government with technical advice, and helps the government maintain the registration system for the displaced. UNHCR has three field offices that seek to ensure the "implementation of domestic legislation for displaced persons at the local level" and provide support to displaced persons' organizations. WFP provides food aid to some 180,000 displaced Colombians in more than 120 communities, but says that its efforts are often disrupted by the insurgents. In 2002, the U.S. government approved $60 million in humanitarian aid for Colombia, primarily to benefit displaced Colombians.
In 2001, the UN asked its agencies in Colombia to prepare a Humanitarian Plan of Action for a coordinated response to the needs of internally displaced Colombians. The plan was formally presented in Bogota in November 2002 at a meeting attended by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers and is due for implementation in 2003.
Refugees from Colombia
While a majority of Colombia's uprooted are internally displaced, in recent years increasing numbers of Colombians have sought refuge abroad. The International Organization for Migration estimates that over the past five years, approximately 1.2 million Colombians have emigrated to other countries, both to escape violence and persecution and for economic reasons.
Some 58,000 Colombian refugees and asylum seekers were in other countries. About 18,500 were in neighboring countries (Ecuador 9,000, Costa Rica 7,500, Venezuela 1,000, Panama 1,000). In North America, approximately 28,000 Colombians were granted asylum during the year or had asylum claims pending at year's end (United States 24,000, Canada 4,000). About 12,000 Colombians applied for asylum in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand in 2002.
Most of the Colombians who seek asylum in countries outside the region are urban, middle-class people who have been subjected to kidnapping or extortion, fear being subjected to these, or fear the generalized violence in Colombia, which in 2002 increasingly targeted major urban centers.
Colombians who seek asylum in these countries are, however, only a minority of those who seek refuge there. Most Colombians in need of international protection do not apply for asylum, fearing that their claims will not meet standards of individualized persecution.
In October, UNHCR declared that many Colombians who flee abroad probably are refugees and "indeed in need of international protection," and urged governments to extend protection through whatever alternate mechanisms they have available to Colombians who do not meet the individualized UN Convention refugee definition. UNHCR disputed some governments' contention that they do not have to provide Colombians international protection because they have a "safe in-country alternative" (i.e. they can find safety in other areas of Colombia).
More than 315,000 Colombians who fled abroad or to neighboring countries, but did not seek asylum were living in refugee-like circumstances (United States 150,000, Ecuador 75,000, Venezuela 50,000 to 75,000, Costa Rica 20,000 to 50,000, Panama 20,000).
In June 2000, the U.S. Congress approved Plan Colombia, a controversial, two-year, $1.3 billion aid package that mostly gave the Colombian armed forces and police military aid to combat narco-trafficking, but also provided some funds for alternative development projects to encourage farmers to grow crops other than coca, assistance to displaced persons and former child soldiers, human rights and democratization projects, and anti-narcotics efforts in countries bordering Colombia. In 2002, the United States provided Colombia an additional $374 million in mostly military aid. Colombia was the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in 2002, behind Israel and Egypt.
In March 2002, acting on a request from the Colombian government, the Administration submitted an emergency appropriations request to Congress that included a largely unnoticed provision that fundamentally changed the nature of the U.S.' involvement in Colombia. The Administration asked Congress to permit the Colombian government to use for anti-terrorism purposes U.S. military aid previously restricted to anti-drug activities. Since the United States lists the FARC, ELN, and AUC as terrorist organizations, the Colombian government would be permitted to use both past and future U.S. military aid in its fight against these groups. Congress approved the measure in August.
U.S.-funded aerial spraying of coca-growing areas in Colombia continued to yield few results. In October the country's top human rights official, the Human Rights Ombudsman, reported that the spraying was causing local people respiratory and skin problems and that it should be halted. President Uribe said that the spraying would continue. The fumigation contributed to displacement, both internally and to Ecuador.
In September, the U.S. government sought the extradition of the AUC's political leader, Carlos Castaño, and its military commander, Salvatore Mancuso, to face drug trafficking charges. Observers speculated that the U.S. move may have prompted the AUC's December cease-fire declaration (one of the group's demands is impunity for its leaders).