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Flight of the Colombians


Colombia’s conflict is the longest of modern times, still continuing after more than 45 years. Hardly anyone is spared by the violence. Some have no choice but to leave their homes to escape threats, harassment or worse.


‘‘I LIVED with my husband and three children on a little piece of land that my mother-in-law had left us. One afternoon we heard shots and hid under our beds in fear. When it was all over, we came out to see what had happened. We found our neighbour and her son, my husband’s cousin, dead. We don’t know who did it, but the next day we decided to flee. We lost the little that we had, but we are very scared and we don’t want to go back there.”

Carmen (not her real name) is just one of millions of Colombians who have had to flee their land for fear of being killed or persecuted by one or more of the armed groups involved in the conflict. In most cases, they have had to abandon their homes in a matter of hours, leaving behind their livestock and belongings.

Born of the cold war era, Colombia’s conflict has pitted a host of organized armed groups against one another and against the Colombian government for more than 45 years. In recent times, many of these armed groups have either turned themselves in or simply dissolved, but others have survived or re-emerged. In several regions of Colombia, armed hostilities persist and show little sign of abating, offering little hope to the thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.

The impact on civilians

The consequences of Colombia’s conflict are dire. Thousands of people have disappeared, and Colombia now has one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations. According to reliable sources, between 2 and 3 million people have been displaced since 1985. In many cases, armed groups have taken control of key strategic or resource-rich territories, forcing the local population to leave. In other instances, people flee their homes following threats or executions of family members or because they fear their children will be coerced into joining the armed groups. Or all too often the intensity of the fighting leaves them with no choice but to seek a safer haven elsewhere.

From the coastal regions of the Sierra Nevada to the north-eastern plains of North Santander by way of the central and southern states of Chocó, Antioquia, Cauca and Putumayo, people have abandoned their homes and settled in run-down villages or urban beltway dwellings. The transition from a rural to an urban or semi-urban existence is both culturally and socio-economically devastating for those concerned. The farming skills of most displaced people provide little added value to urban modes of employment. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, who are disproportionately affected by internal displacement, have strong ties to their land and are particularly affected by being uprooted. To compound their problems, they are often accused of collaborating with the enemy and compelled to move from one place to another before being able to settle more permanently.

Children and women are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of displacement. More than half of all displaced civilians are children. Often, the departamentos (states) are unable to absorb the large numbers of displaced people that settle on their territory, and children have to wait some time before gaining access to medical services or enrolling in schools. Moreover, many displaced families see their children as potential sources of income and prefer them to work rather than go to school. In many cases, these households are headed by single mothers, who are faced with daily hardships and are vulnerable to sexual violence.

To varying degrees, the Colombian government has stepped up efforts to help people displaced by the conflict. Several laws and decrees have been adopted favouring the implementation of public policies that guarantee basic social and individual rights for internally displaced people. A number of cities have also set up orientation centres where public and private institutions provide information and advice on the types of services and assistance that are available to them and, in some cases, such assistance is provided on-site. However, since 2005, according to ICRC figures, the number of internally displaced people has increased, and the government and humanitarian organizations have not been able to respond to the overwhelming needs of all of them.

A substantial response

In Colombia, the ICRC has been at the forefront of efforts to provide emergency assistance, including food and household items, to people displaced by the armed conflict. Over the past ten years, the delegation has assisted more than 1 million displaced people.

For the past ten years, the ICRC delegation in Colombia, in collaboration with public entities and humanitarian organizations, has adapted its assistance programmes according to evolving needs, easing the transition from emergency assistance to reconstruction and development. Manuel Duce, ICRC delegate and relief specialist, insists that “given that very few internally displaced people return to their homes, our chief concern is that they become economically self-sufficient”.

The delegation works closely with Acción Social — a public institution which, among other things, provides short- and long-term aid to displaced people — and civil society organizations, local governments and United Nations agencies. In most cases, the ICRC provides assistance during the first three months of displacement and up to six months for single-parent households, while Acción Social and other public services complement that assistance with more sustainable initiatives in the areas of housing, education and health.

The ICRC has five sub-delegations and six offices in Colombia, strategically located in areas worst affected by the armed conflict. Despite this extensive deployment, the ICRC would not be able to carry out all of its assistance activities without its valuable partnership with the Colombian Red Cross Society. In the towns and cities of Valledupar, Sincelejo, Pereira, Villaviciencio and Bucaramanga, Colombian Red Cross branches process individual cases of displaced people and provide them with food and basic household items according to their needs. When mass displacements occur, the ICRC works hand-in-hand with Colombian Red Cross volunteers to assess the needs on the ground prior to organizing transportation and distribution of assistance.

In an effort to preserve the dignity of displaced people and render direct food distribution more suited to the specific needs of each individual, the ICRC has launched a pilot project that allows beneficiaries to receive vouchers and exchange them in designated markets for a list of essential food and hygiene items. Such a system also benefits local markets and contributes to the general welfare of communities. If all goes well, the pilot project will be extended to other locations.

The task at hand remains a genuine challenge. The continuing displacement of the civilian population still requires a steady commitment to finding more creative, collaborative and effective solutions for assistance to and protection of those affected. Meanwhile, the ICRC will also seek preventive measures to stem the flow of internal displacement by continuing its dialogue with both state and non-state actors to ensure greater respect for international humanitarian law.


Displaced children in Belalcazar, Caldas region of Colombia.









Partners for many years, the Colombian Red Cross and ICRC respond daily to the needs of displaced people throughout the country.

Yves Heller
Yves Heller is ICRC communications coordinator in Colombia.



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