Colombia: Facing the consequences of displacement

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Forced displacement in Colombia caused by armed conflict between leftist rebel groups, paramilitary narco-criminal gangs and the Colombian armed forces continues to be a serious tragedy for hundreds of thousands of Colombian citizens.

This phenomenon is having a dramatic impact on Colombian society. Recent debates over the statistics of newly displaced Colombians are distracting attention from structural changes that have occurred in Colombian society because of this human and social reconfiguration of society. The majority of displaced people are crowding urban centers, but many have rural backgrounds. As a result, they may be good farmers, but their skills are unusable in these new contexts. Attempts to provide them with opportunities to access new livelihoods and professions seem to not be working.

Displaced people normally concentrate in the poorest sectors of cities and live in subhuman accommodations. Hundred of thousands of adolescents drop out of school in order to provide some form of support to their families, but very rarely succeed in securing jobs and are widely exposed to criminal and illegal economic activities.

Last week I was in Bogota, the Colombian capital, attending a series of workshops on the difficulties encountered by local authorities in responding to the humanitarian and protection needs of displaced people. During discussions with several officials, it was evident that many of the policies planned and implemented by the central government in the last few years are not working. Their welfare-based mechanisms are creating dependency and disrupting beneficiaries' efforts to obtain economic self-sufficiency and social stability.

Another disturbing note was that local government officials have started to blame displaced people for the failure of public policies, considering them opportunists, dishonest and prone to abuse the system. The general perception was that internally displaced people have become a privileged category of Colombians to the detriment of the local resident population and that financial resources have been diverted from helping other resident vulnerable groups.

Some recommendations provided by the officials were particularly worrisome. A few people desired to change the current legislation and diminish protection guarantees for displaced people, while others wanted the authority to determine an adequate level of assistance and degrees of vulnerability. There was also an inclination towards policies that encourage people to return home -- a dangerous and unsustainable proposition given the lack of security in areas of return.

It is becoming clear that Colombian authorities in Bogota do not realize the extent of the problem or how difficult it is for local authorities to respond. As a local official said, "The increasing number of displaced people is a ticking bomb for our cities. We fear major security and crime problems for the future." The refusal to accept that Colombia faces a huge humanitarian crisis due to a protracted internal armed conflict must be overcome. Only then can the nation avoid even worse problems in the years to come.