USCR Country Report Colombia: Statistics on refugees and other uprooted people, Jun 2001

Originally published
An estimated 2.1 million Colombians were internally displaced at the end of 2000, including about 315,000 who became displaced during the year.
Although relatively few Colombians are officially recognized as refugees in neighboring countries, thousands of Colombians have been granted asylum in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in recent years. In 2000, approximately 3,400 Colombians applied for asylum in the United States, some 2,230 in Europe, 1,456 in Costa Rica, and 723 in Canada.

In 2000, more than 226,000 Colombians who may have left their country for reasons similar to those of refugees and asylum seekers traveled abroad (particularly to the United States) with tourist visas and remained abroad after their visas expired. An estimated 80,000 to 105,000 other Colombians were living in refugee-like circumstances in neighboring countries, primarily Venezuela (50,000 to 75,000) and Ecuador (30,000). During the year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated the repatriation of 246 Colombian refugees, mostly from Panama (212). Colombia hosted 230 UNHCR-recognized refugees.

For its estimate of the number of displaced in Colombia and other statistics regarding internally displaced Colombians, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) relies primarily on information from the Consultoría para el Desplazamiento Forzado y los Derechos Humanos (CODHES), a Colombian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works closely with the Catholic Church, other NGOs, and local authorities to produce detailed statistics on displacement in Colombia.

The government of Colombia also compiles data on displacement. It estimates that there are some 525,000 displaced persons in need of assistance, including 125,000 newly displaced during 2000. However, the government estimate takes into account only new displacement in the last three to four years, and its sources are more limited than those available to CODHES. USCR finds the CODHES figures to be more complete and a better reflection of the actual level of displacement.

Causes of Displacement

Displacement in Colombia is a direct result of conflict, political violence, and rampant human rights abuse. The parties to the conflict in Colombia include left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary organizations, and the Colombian armed forces. Narcotraffickers and other criminal elements contribute to Colombia's widespread violence.

FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces) and ELN (Ejército Nacional de Liberación - National Liberation Army) guerrillas commonly target local officials, civic leaders, and business owners whom they perceive to be opposing them. They do so to intimidate the local population into supporting them, although their tactics often alienate civilians and cause them to flee. The FARC and ELN fund their insurgencies both through kidnappings and taxing coca growers and narcotraffickers in areas under their control.

The FARC recruits minors, some as young as nine years old. In October, after killing 46 rebels and capturing 77 others during fighting near Bucaramanga, the armed forces found that 20 of the 46 guerrillas killed and 32 of the 77 captured were minors, many aged 15 or younger. Many families flee guerrilla-controlled areas to safeguard their children from being recruited by the guerrillas.

Much-anticipated peace talks between the government and the FARC began in January 1999, but quickly hit a snag and were suspended until October 1999. Revived peace talks continued sporadically during 2000 in Colombia, Venezuela, and Spain, but yielded no concrete results.

In April, the government announced that it was considering taking some steps that the ELN had said were prerequisites for peace talks, but little came of that process either.

Since 1995, the 12,000-strong AUC ("Autodefensas" Unidas de Córdoba - United "Self-Defense" Groups of Córdoba, hereafter paramilitaries), an umbrella organization that encompasses most of the paramilitary groups that operate in Colombia, has been responsible for most of the killing and forced displacement of civilians.

The AUC's stated objective is to rid Colombia of the guerrillas, but it has many other political and economic interests. According to Colombia's Ministry of Defense, "In many places, narcotraffickers interested in expanding their rural properties have armed and utilized rural self-defense [paramilitary] groups not only to eradicate the guerrillas from certain areas, but also to expel other land owners, generally small and medium land owners, with the aim of appropriating their lands."

The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) and other local and international human rights organizations charge that the government is responsible for many of the abuses committed against civilians, including forced displacement, because it supports or tolerates the actions of the paramilitary groups. According to the CCJ, "In many of the crimes committed by the paramilitaries, there is active or passive participation of government forces."

In its report on human rights in Colombia in 2000, the U.S. State Department said, "Members of the security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses, in some instances allowing such groups to pass through roadblocks, sharing information, or providing them with supplies or ammunition. Despite increased government efforts to combat and capture members of paramilitary groups, often security forces failed to take action to prevent paramilitary attacks."

The Colombian government continued to deny accusations that it supports or colludes with paramilitary groups. A December 2000 report on paramilitary groups issued by the vice president's office said that the findings of a government study on this issue "disproved accusations that the government finances, organizes, or plans joint operations with 'self defense' [paramilitary] groups." The report noted, however, "That does not mean that some of its [the government's] agents do not have an attitude towards these organizations [paramilitaries] that is sympathetic, or even supportive."

According to the government, in 2000, para- militaries were responsible for 71 percent of forced displacement and guerrillas were responsible for 14 percent. According to the CCJ, between April and December 2000, paramilitaries killed or "disappeared" 1,218 civilians.

On July 14, the New York Times published the findings of a lengthy investigation into one of the most horrific of these incidents, a massacre in February committed by paramilitaries in El Salado, a town in northern Colombia that USCR visited in 1997. Paramilitaries entered the town on the morning of February 18 and gathered all of its residents on the basketball court. They "ordered liquor and music, and then embarked on a calculated rampage of torture, rape, and killing" that continued for three days and left 36 people dead, mostly men but including a six-year-old girl and an elderly woman. A survivor said, "To them it was like a big party, they drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs."

Witnesses said that military and police units based nearby were aware that the massacre was taking place but did nothing to intervene. According to the Times, "Instead of fighting back, the armed forces set up a roadblock on the way to the village shortly after the rampage began, and prevented human rights and relief groups from entering and rescuing residents." The massacre in El Salado led to the displacement of more than 3,000 civilians.

Other massacres also occurred during the year. In March, guerrillas killed 21 police officers, the mayor, and seven civilians (including two children aged two and three) in Vigia del Fuerte, 230 miles (370 km) northwest of Bogotá. In November, paramilitaries massacred as many as 70 people in Nueva Venecia, in Magdalena Department. In late August, paramilitaries killed about 40 people in various cities during a weekend killing spree. Guerrillas and paramilitaries also killed 20 mayoral candidates in the months leading up to municipal elections in October.

In 2000, the Colombian authorities arrested 266 paramilitaries and removed 388 military and police officials from service for having committed human rights violations. In December, the Ministry of Defense confirmed that 57 of the officers whom the government dismissed had joined the paramilitaries.

Government and NGO Assistance

In recent years, the government has enacted a law and issued several decrees that outline its responsibilities to the displaced. However, its record on implementing those has been poor.

In 1999, the government transferred responsibility for assisting the displaced to yet another government entity, the Red de Solidaridad Social (Social Solidarity Network, hereafter the Red). The Red is a national public entity directly under the administration of the Office of the President that has delegations in 32 departmental capitals and Bogotá.

The government's response to displaced persons, particularly to the emergency needs of newly displaced persons, has improved since it assigned the Red this responsibility. However, its response to displaced persons' post-emergency needs remains inadequate. Regional and local authorities do little to help the displaced, in part because they have few resources with which to help.

Colombian NGOs, the Catholic Church, and other religious-based organizations are crucial in mobilizing a response to the needs of the displaced. In part with funding from the European Union, they carry out a number of assistance programs for displaced persons throughout Colombia. Until the late 1990s, all of the international NGOs assisting displaced Colombians (mostly working through local implementing partners) were European. However, more recently, U.S. NGOs have also begun to assist.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides emergency assistance to newly displaced persons, and the World Food Program provides food aid to some 230,000 displaced persons. UNHCR provides the Colombian government technical cooperation on issues of displacement, including helping the government establish and maintain a registration system for the displaced; supporting coordination mechanisms between the government, NGOs, and displaced persons' associations; and training the armed forces on the prevention of displacement and protection of displaced persons.

Most displaced Colombians live in poor conditions. The only work available to them is poorly paid day labor, often on construction or road-building crews, or cleaning private homes. Many of the displaced try to create work for themselves in the informal economy, selling fruit and vegetables, cigarettes, or other products on street corners or house to house.

Displaced persons have become increasingly frustrated with the government's insufficient attention to their needs. In 1998 and 1999, displaced persons temporarily occupied the offices of the Defensoria del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) and UNHCR. A group of about 60 displaced persons occupied the office of the ICRC in Bogotá in December 1999 and remained there throughout 2000. The government refused to yield to their demands for post-emergency assistance. It said that since it did not have the funds to provide post-emergency assistance to other displaced persons (even though by law it is supposed to), it could not provide it to the displaced occupying the ICRC office.

U.S. Involvement

In January 2000, President Clinton proposed a $1.6 billion aid package for Colombia and neighboring countries. He said its purpose was "to assist Colombia in vital counter-drug efforts aimed at keeping illegal drugs off our shores. It will also help Colombia promote peace and prosperity and deepen its democracy." The aid was in response to an appeal by Colombian president Andres Pastrana for international funding for "Plan Colombia," an ambitious, $7 billion program that the Colombian government says is aimed at combating drugs and promoting peace and development.

The U.S. Congress debated the aid for several months and approved a slightly modified $1.3 billion version of the aid package in late June. The final package provided $519 million to the Colombian military, $123.8 million to the police, $68.5 million for alternative development (to encourage peasants to grow crops other than coca), $37.5 million to assist displaced persons, $112 million for various human rights and democratization projects, and $459 million for Colombia's neighbors.

Many Colombian and U.S.-based human rights groups, including USCR, opposed the aid to the Colombian military. In a February 9 press release, USCR said, "The Clinton Administration's misguided and will probably backfire to the detriment of both the United States and the Colombian people.... It proposes massive amounts of military aid that will undoubtedly be used as much for counterinsurgency as for counter-narcotics."

As congressional debate on the aid package progressed, the U.S. media began paying more attention to Colombia. Editorial boards began to take sides on the aid package. The Washington Post welcomed it, saying it would "help in the search for a negotiated settlement to the war," arguing that the FARC "will not bargain in good faith unless confronted with a credible military threat." But the New York Times opposed the aid package, saying it would "intensify a conflict that neither side can win and wreck the peace process."

Although many Colombians supported Plan Colombia, most residents and local officials in Putumayo Department, the area that would be most directly affected by U.S.-funded aerial fumigation of coca fields, opposed it.

USCR traveled to Putumayo in June. Farmers whose land had already been fumigated said that the fumigation had destroyed fruit trees and vegetable crops, leaving the soil so contaminated that they were not able to re-plant their food crops, and that contamination of streams and ponds has resulted in widespread deaths of fish and farm animals. The mayor of Puerto Asis municipality said that fumigation "will not end coca production. That will just move deeper into the jungle." Many farmers said that they would be glad to substitute other crops for coca, but the government would have to help them.

Although paramilitaries first moved into southern Colombia early in 2000, they expanded their presence between July and September. Thousands of civilians became displaced or fled across the border into Ecuador as the paramilitaries battled with guerrillas for control of towns. In October, the FARC initiated a blockade of Puerto Asis, which by then had come under the control of paramilitaries. The government airlifted troops and food into Puerto Asis, but was unable to break the blockade. The FARC ended the blockade in December after meeting with the UN's special representative for Colombia.

On December 6, just minutes after concluding a radio address in which he said that residents of his town were living in fear, the mayor of the Putumayo town of Orito, Carlos Rosas, was shot dead.

Colombian Refugees

The number of Colombians seeking refuge abroad continued to grow during the year. More than 12,000 Colombians fled to Ecuador and about 1,000 fled to Venezuela in 2000. Most of those who fled to Ecuador repatriated voluntarily, but the Venezuelan authorities forcibly returned 680 who fled to Venezuela during the year. At year's end, there were 1,370 Colombian refugees in Ecuador, 30 in Venezuela, and 430 in Panama. Another 80,000 to 105,000 Colombians were living in those countries in refugee-like circumstances.

According to the Colombian government's immigration department, 226,165 Colombians traveled abroad and did not return home during 2000. Some sought asylum in other countries, primarily in North America, Europe, and Costa Rica; others remained in other South American countries without documentation. Based on government statistics, as many as 1.1 million Colombians may have emigrated from the country since 1996. A Gallup poll taken in Colombia in early 2000 found that half of all Colombians would consider leaving the country if the violence there continues to escalate.

USCR Response

USCR visited Colombia for the fifth time in May and June 2000. It investigated developments during the year and assessed conditions for displaced persons in Bogotá, Cartagena, Buga, Tulua, Buenaventura, and various cites and towns in Putumayo Department. Following that visit, USCR published its findings in Refugee Reports. USCR also produced an educational video, "Speaking Out: Displaced Colombians Silent No More," that documents the causes of displacement in Colombia, conditions for the displaced, and displaced persons' efforts to organize to voice their own needs. USCR also sponsored a speaking tour to five U.S. cities by the head of a Colombian displaced persons' organization.

In press releases issued during the year, USCR criticized the proposed U.S. military aid to Colombia; condemned massacres at El Salado and La Union; called on the Colombian government to protect displaced persons in Tulua and Buga; criticized Venezuela's treatment of Colombian asylum seekers; and urged the United States to offer temporary protected status to Colombians in the United States.

As Congress debated the U.S. aid package, USCR met with congressional staff to express its concern. After Congress approved the package, USCR joined other NGOs in urging the Administration not to certify that Colombia had met human rights conditions identified by Congress as prerequisites to the United States delivering the promised aid.

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Copyright 2000, USCR