By Gary Leech
The Tercer Milenio Park is located only blocks from Colombia's presidential palace in the center of Bogotá and offers respite from the chaotic city to local residents. But for the past four months, it has also been a refuge from the country's rural violence for more than one thousand displaced persons. In March, displaced people from every corner of Colombia occupied the central Plaza Bolívar to protest the government's failure to combat forced displacement and to address the needs of internal refugees. Police relocated the protesters to nearby Tercer Milenio Park, where they have lived ever since in makeshift homes constructed of wood and plastic sheets. More than 380,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced from their homes by violence in 2008 and, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, more than 50 families arrive in Bogotá everyday seeking refuge. Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno has publicly stated that the city is losing control of the situation and Health Secretary Hector Zambrano has called on the national government to establish refugee camps.
Colombia currently has more than four million displaced persons, the second-highest internal refugee population in the world after the Sudan. But unlike other countries enduring armed conflicts that create significant displaced populations, Colombia has so far refused to address the humanitarian crisis by establishing refugee camps to ensure that the basic needs of the displaced are met. In fact, the Uribe government continues to deny that an armed conflict exists in Colombia, despite that the fact that the number of people forcibly displaced by violence in 2008 increased by 24 percent over the previous year and some 56,000 displaced people arrived in Bogotá. Government officials prefer to focus attention on the country's economic growth and a decrease in kidnappings in recent years. As a result, says Zambrano, "the problem of displacement is treated like dirt that is hidden under the carpet."
The new residents of Tercer Milenio Park cook meals on small open fires in front of the shanties that serve as their homes. Children constitute almost half of the camp's residents. All of those living in Tercer Milenio have taken it upon themselves to bring attention to the oft-ignored plight of Colombia's displaced population. "It hurts us a lot that our country has attended so well to the killers, the ones that have been demobilized," Emilio Montoya, one of the displaced residing in the park, explained last month. "We don't have anything against them, and I hope all the groups on the margin of the law demobilize, but also that the national government has the decency to remember the victims and that we are people that have not participated in the armed conflict, that have not taken up weapons, that have not killed, that have not done damage to the country, and yet the government will not negotiate with us."
Another resident of the park, who was displaced from Valle de Cauca, echoed Montoya's sentiments. "We are asking for a table of dialogue like the one in the Caguán that President Andrés Pastrana had with the subversive group FARC, and like the one President Uribe held in El Ralito when he sat down with the AUC. Why won't they sit down with us, the victims? Shame on them."
In 1997, the Colombian Congress passed Law 387, which established rights for the displaced population including access to humanitarian aid. But the process for accessing that aid is cumbersome, leaving many to fend for themselves. And those displaced persons who do manage to procurere aid from the government can only collect it for three months, which provides little security for people who are often unable to return home for years. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to displaced persons realizing the rights accorded to them under Law 387 is the attitude of members of the Uribe administration who prefer to call displaced persons "economic migrants" in an effort to downplay the magnitude of the problem.
Not only is the government failing to effectively address the plight of the displaced, but the Colombian military's aggressive counterinsurgency operations are a major cause of the escalating refugee crisis as soldiers forcibly displace communities in regions traditionally controlled by the guerrillas. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, "The government's military strategy, which was intended to be preventive, is instead resulting in an increased displacement of people."
Much of the displacement is being perpetrated by the military and newly-formed paramilitary groups in traditional guerrilla strongholds that contain valuable resources or economically-valuable land. Along Colombia's Pacific coast, particularly in the departments of Nariño and the Chocó, thousands of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples have been forcibly displaced to make their lands available for African palm cultivation-much of which is being produced to satisfy the increasing demand for agro-fuels in the wealthy nations of the global North.
Significant displacement has also occurred in mining regions where multinational corporations are seeking to exploit Colombia's extensive mineral reserves. The bilateral free trade agreements being pushed by the U.S. and Canadian governments will only intensify Colombia's refugee crisis as they will further open up Colombia to foreign investment, particularly in the resource extraction sector.
Julián Arboleda, an Afro-Colombian who was displaced from the Chocó along with his wife and children six years ago, is the elected leader of the community in Tercer Milenio Park. According to Arboleda, the displaced living in the park have made three demands of the national government: That they be provided with a dignified place to live; productive projects; and humanitarian aid for the entire time that they are displaced, particularly for women who are heads of households.
Meanwhile, Montoya claimed that the international community could do more to help the situation. "People need to take notice of what is happening here in Colombia," he said. "The money that comes from other countries is dedicated to war and is not helping the displaced people who are the victims of the armed conflict."
The difficult living conditions in the park have taken their toll on the displaced-symbolizing the plight of the broader displaced population. A 13-year-old displaced girl was recently raped in the park by a police officer while five other officers beat on drums and watched. Meanwhile, an emergency medical committee examined the refugees last week and revealed that 131 of them exhibited symptoms of the swine flu virus while numerous others suffered from tuberculosis. However, after more than four months of occupying the park, the protesters did finally force the government to negotiate with them. A representative from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) mediated talks between the residents of Tercer Milenio Park and the government and, by the end of the last week, an agreement had been reached. Under the agreement, the government will provide each family with an average of $465 per month and a lump sum payment of $2,700 in November to be used to establish a small business. For their part, the displaced agreed to vacate the park.
The agreement helps address the plight of the protesters in Tercer Milenio Park who succeeded in thrusting their case into the national spotlight, but whether this agreement reveals a new willingness on the government's part to effectively address the overall displacement crisis remains to be seen. After all, the agreement could just as easily be interpreted as the Uribe government's latest effort to sweep the broader problem of displacement under the rug.