Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, claimed tangible results in human rights protection; human rights groups disputed this and the number of people uprooted by the civil war continued to soar, reaching an estimated 2.96 million as of December 31, 2003. Some 230,000 persons were newly displaced inside the country by year's end for a total of 2.73 million. An estimated 234,000 Colombians were seeking refuge abroad: 182,300 in Venezuela, 16,300 in Ecuador and 1,100 in Panama. Beyond the border countries, Costa Rica hosted 8,300 Colombian refugees and asylum seekers, the United States 19,400, Canada 4,800, other Latin American countries about 400 and Europe, Australia or New Zealand about 1,100. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) estimated that at least 290,000 Colombians lived in refugee like circumstances in various countries of the Americas, including: about 75,000 in Ecuador, 20,000 in Panama, 20,000 in Costa Rica, and 150,000 in the United States.

Colombia itself hosted 220 refugees and asylum seekers at year's end. It recognized five refugees during the year, with five applications pending.

Protection Failures

Panama forcibly returned 110 Colombians in April. Another 112 returned to Choco Department late in 2003 and early in 2004 with the agreement of the Colombian government. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the U.S. government observed the return. The latter declared the returns voluntary, although human rights groups criticized plans for the returns. Panama had not extended refugee status to these people and fighting continued in Choco. The United States declined to grant Temporary Protected Status to Colombians. Venezuela processed only a handful of claims and the number of arriving Colombians overwhelmed Ecuador's process.

The government registered only 1.23 million internally displaced persons. Observers estimated only 43 percent of the government's total received aid. The UN has not been able to fill the gaps in Colombian government support. Even though USCR's displacement total is double that of the government, it is likely an underestimate because:

  • many did not register with the government out of mistrust,
  • the government did not register the estimated 30,000 displaced by the fumigation plan,
  • neither the government nor independent groups could fully track the people who fled homes in isolated border regions;
  • the government has never adequately counted those displaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s when this surge began;
  • many feared reprisals by the armed groups displacing them if they registered with the government; and
  • government and opposition forces blockaded civilians inside their communities – often indigenous or Afro Colombians – preventing tens of thousands from fleeing.

Armed factions justified blockading communities, which could have affected 100,000 people, as necessary to control communities and cut off support for the opposition.

Government Offensive

Uribe escalated military operations against guerrillas and paramilitaries and continued the widespread fumigation program underwritten by the United States. The government established a contingent of some 15,000 peasant soldiers and 1 million paid informants. Uribe criticized human rights advocates as aiding the guerillas; in one September speech calling them "politickers at the service of terrorism." The government planned to close some local human rights offices and often ignored its own early warning system for imminent displacement. Such actions militarized the civilian population, blurred the lines between civilians and combatants, and eroded the core legal principal requiring forces to distinguish military objectives from civilians.

Uribe's administration reestablished government control in a number of areas where the government had been essentially absent. The rate of displacement in 2003 decreased from 2002, during which 320,000 people were newly displaced – the greatest number ever displaced in a single year. Based on such facts, the government promoted returns. Critics of returns pointed out that in 2003 residents were forced to flee their homes in the vast majority of the nation's municipalities, 82 percent (904 of 1100 municipalities) compared to 2000 when less than 50 percent of the municipalities were affected. They also noted that the grand total of displaced persons continued to grow and concluded that violence was too widespread to promote large-scale returns.

The United States deepened its involvement, with the Bush Administration seeking $600 million for Plan Colombia in fiscal year 2004, $450 million of this for Colombia's security forces. In addition, the Administration expanded its mission beyond counter narcotics to fighting the armed groups and protecting the oil pipeline 44 percent-owned by Occidental Petroleum. The United States had about 400 troops in Colombia and hundreds of defense contractors. The United States supported only 40,000 acres of alternative crop farming, even as legitimate crops were fumigated and entire communities displaced. Despite credible documentation, including by the U.S. State Department, of government implication in many human rights violations, the U.S. government continued to certify that the Colombian government met human rights standards to continue to receive Plan Colombia aid.


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