For over forty years Colombia has been undergoing an internal armed conflict that has led to deeper inequality and poverty for the most vulnerable groups in the country. On average, the conflict has resulted in the loss of 4,500 lives per year, mainly civilians, and caused three million people to be forcibly displaced and hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring countries or other continents. The effects have not only been felt on Colombian territory; the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in neighbouring countries, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, have also been affected. Children and young people in all three countries have been severely affected by the armed struggle being waged by the insurgency and the counterinsurgency, especially in terms of the opportunities they have to study, access health care and food security, grow up in a family that protects and supports them and make plans to live their lives in peace and harmony with their communities.
The purpose of this document, which has been produced by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Coalición contra la vinculación de niños, niñas y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia (Coalico - Coalition against the involvement of children and young people in the armed conflict in Colombia), is to describe the experiences of boys, girls and young people from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela with regard to the Colombian armed conflict, warn of the increasingly varied methods of recruitment and involvement being used in border areas by the armed groups operating in the region and draw attention to other types of exploitation associated with areas where conflict exists, such as prostitution and the use of child labour in illicit activities. We hope that, by focusing on the border problems, we will make the relevant authorities from the three countries and all agencies working with children and young people who are at risk of being recruited or attracted to such groups wake up to the fact that they need to take urgent steps to re-evaluate national plans and priorities so that this issue is given the programmatic and political priority it so desperately requires.
The document has six parts. The first three parts deal with the national situation in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, the existing national legislation on the recruitment of minors under 18 years of age and the current practice in each country with regard to this phenomenon. The fourth part looks in particular at the links between internal displacement, refuge, the border situation and joining armed groups. The fifth focuses on the specific policies and programs that are being developed in each country to face up to the problems described above and the last section describes the challenges that still need to be confronted and provides a list of recommendations addressed to all the relevant actors.
The report was compiled by Michael Bochenek, from Human Rights Watch, Andrés Vázquez and Claudia Ricca from the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and the Coalición contra la vinculación de niños, niñas y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia (Coalico). It was produced with the support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. In Colombia, four researchers (three from NGOs who are members of Coalico and one from an international NGO) visited communities in Bogotá, Cartagena and Barrancabermeja which have received displaced people in July and August 2004, followed by several follow-up visits in the period until December 2004. In Ecuador, a team of six people (three from Ecuadorian NGOs, one from a Colombian NGO and one from an international NGO) visited the provinces of Esmeraldas, Sucumbíos and Carchi, the three provinces which border Colombia, in March 2005. In Venezuela, a team of three people (one each from a Colombian NGO, a Venezuelan NGO and an international NGO) visited the states of Alto Apure, Táchira and Zulia in April and May 2005.
The teams conducted over 250 individual interviews with refugees and displaced persons, members of receiving communities, teachers, social workers, local officials and protection officers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and representatives of local and international NGOs. The interviews were semi-structured, using a list of questions developed in workshops carried out in Colombia and Ecuador prior to the missions.