Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Colombian displacement leads to growing issues

By: Garrett Downing
Edited by: Steve Gartner

An ongoing conflict between rebels and paramilitary groups throughout Colombia has led to a growing problem of internally displaced people within the country, creating a social and economic burden on the country.

The number of displaced people has grown steadily in recent years, and current figures estimate that nearly 5 million Colombians are currently displaced within the country, putting Colombia behind only the Sudan in the number of IDPs, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a human rights group in Switzerland that monitors displacements.
“The situation is a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Liam-Craig Best, director of Justice for Colombia, a London based human rights group.

About 10 percent of Colombia’s population lives as internal refugees, and most of the IDPs have moved into the urban areas, creating slums and stretching the country’s resources. About 93 percent of the country’s displaced people are in the urban areas, according to a recent article in the University of Oxford publication Forced Migration Review. State agencies that are tasked with monitoring the displaced people and providing them with subsequent aid are unable to keep up with the increasing demand.

“The economic and social problems due to a mix of large scale forced displacement and migration are huge,” IDMC country analyst Sebastián Albuja responded to an interview in an email.

The cost of displacement has taken a heavy toll on society.

The IDPs often live in poor areas where they face problems inherent to sub-standard living conditions, such as a lack of adequate healthcare and no running water. In addition to living in under-developed housing, the viable job opportunities for IDPs are minimal.

Displaced people struggle to earn a sustainable income, and 98.6 percent of the IDPs in Colombia live below the poverty line, while 82.6 percent are officially classified as living in extreme poverty, according to the Forced Migration Review. The displaced population even falls well-below the country’s working poor, as the income of IDPs in the capital city Bogotá averages 27 percent less than the poor population.

“Host cities have a hard time planning for these patterns of human movement, they can't provide adequate services, and are stuck with sub-standard areas,” Albuja said.

The problem is actually getting worse. In 2006, the number of new displacement cases was 221,638. That number escalated to 380,863 in 2008, according to information provided to us by Justice for Colombia.

The Colombian government has tried to address the problem, but had minimal success.
Recent legislation has targeted the displaced population by providing aid to those who are registered within the IDP database. Experts like Albuja say many IDPs go unregistered, which immediately excludes them from any kind of assistance, and even those who receive government assistance still struggle to meet their needs.

“They receive an emergency aid kit which includes some basic necessities,” Albuja said “But in the big scheme of things, their condition is still deplorable.”

The reasons for such a large displaced population are many, but most emanate from the conflict between left-wing rebel groups like the FARC and right-wing paramilitary groups. Fighting between the different groups has citizens concerned for their safety, and a growing number of human rights violations resulting from the conflict have people fleeing certain areas in search of refuge.

These paramilitary groups are heavily invested in the drug trade as a means of income, and the volatile nature of the drug business has affected people across the country.
Attempts by the government to halt the drug trafficking have been unsuccessful, allowing the drug wars to continually displace additional people.

“There is no stabilization of the drug trade in the long run,” said Gustavo Silva Cano, a Colombian citizen currently studying at Princeton University.

Drug lords begin harvesting coca plants and instituting the drug trade in a certain area, which typically leads to initial violence and forces people to flee. Once the drug business starts to boom, then the government tries to disrupt the production by eradicating fields or targeting the groups.

Then the drug production simply moves to another area.

This is known as the “balloon effect,” where the government’s efforts to squeeze drug production in one area simply results in an expansion of trade elsewhere, Cano said.

Even after the drug lords leave, the damage to the region lingers and the farmers who once occupied the land rarely return home.

“Prospects for the return of most displaced people to their original homes remain low because of the ongoing conflict,” Craig-Best said.

Photos courtesy of harvard.edu and unhcr.ca

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