Thematic Series - UnSettlement: Urban displacement in the 21st century

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This thematic series explores the scale, nature and dynamics of internal displacement in towns and cities across the world

‘FROM AID TO EMPOWERMENT’: Addressing urban displacement in Colombia’s informal settlements


IDMC embarked on a research programme in February 2018 to investigate the scale, nature and dynamics of internal displacement in towns and cities across the world.

This study examines the phenomenon in Colombia and analyses the humanitarian response to the needs of urban internally displaced people (IDPs) and their host communities in informal settlements. Research for the study was undertaken in Altos de la Florida, an informal settlement in Soacha on the outskirts of Bogotá, between 2016 and 2019.


Urban IDPs face protracted vulnerability and high levels of poverty and violence
Internal displacement has played a significant role in urbanisation in Colombia. A large 89 per cent of the historical eight million country’s IDPs have been displaced from rural to urban areas by conflict and violence, and informal settlements have become a refuge of last resort for many. These densely populated areas have high levels of poverty and inequality, inadequate housing and few if any basic services. Urban violence, beyond countries’ armed conflict, has also triggered new and secondary displacement from some settlements, creating a downward spiral of vulnerability and risk.

Intra-urban displacement has a significant humanitarian impact
Violence in informal settlements, caused mainly by gangs and criminal organisations, triggers displacement between urban areas, also known as intra-urban displacement. Illegal armed groups exert social and territorial control over many urban areas in Colombia, and their activities force people, including those already displaced at least once, to flee from one neighbourhood to another. People’s precarious living conditions can also trigger intra-urban displacement.

Prolonged emergency assistance based on individual organisations’ mandates creates aid dependency
Soacha was chosen as the research location for this report because it was the focus of significant international intervention between 2006 and 2018, particularly in Altos de la Florida. Humanitarian efforts were impeded, however, by a lack of community ownership of responses, the result of weakened social cohesion, and a lack of coordination both within the community and with local authorities. Prolonged assistance programmes also helped to create a culture of dependency. Dependency is more likely in communities whose social fabric has been weakened.

A resilience approach in safe environments makes humanitarian responses more effective and sustainable
Community resilience in Altos de la Florida has been strengthened in protective spaces. Interventions combine protection, a top-down approach intended to guarantee individuals’ rights, and a bottom-up approach defined as building individual, family and community capacity through participatory processes. These focus on creating economic opportunities, strengthening social fabric and supporting at-risk groups such as children, young people, women and community leaders.