Colombian IDP’s: (Re)membering the forgotten

Colombia seems to have become a symbol of the dogged struggle against inequality that we identify with communist ideals. In the midst of chaotic state of affairs, hope takes a new form through the peace talks held between the different guerilla groups, paramilitary groups and the government. Pratiti Ganatra takes a look at this emergent face of Colombia…

The United Nations says that the internally displaced people or IDP’s are often wrongly referred to as refugees. “Unlike refugees, IDP’s have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees (armed conflict, generalised violence, human rights violations), IDP’s legally remain under the protection of their own government – even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.” There were 5,185,406 victims of forced displacement within Colombia between 1985 and December 2013. And although this figure may vary depending on the agency and how it calculates the number of those displaced, the fact that millions of people are homeless in their homeland is a matter that hasn’t caught the frenzied attention of the world media as of yet.

Colombia is a nation that has been ravaged by one of the most complicated armed conflicts that the world has seen in the last few decades. It has neither been a short nor a very easy-to-choose-sides kind of conflict. It has pitted guerrilla forces against paramilitary forces with the army and the government providing tacit support. With roots in the La Violencia of the 1940’s, it was the strong anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960’s, which led to the escalation of this conflict. It was around this time that the most important guerilla organisation was set up by the Liberal party remnants – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in retaliation to which the Colombian army set up their subsidiary units – the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Over the years, this perpetual struggle over arms, drug trafficking, kidnappings, murders – both political and apolitical, have destroyed the Colombian society in more ways than one.

The constant confrontation between the guerilla groups and paramilitary organisations forced the villagers, peasants and the rural population to flee their homes in search of refuge. Most of them flocked to the nearest urban centres thinking that this would guarantee some sort of safety. Although the majority of IDP’s who left behind everything in search of a safe haven did so in small numbers, the instances where this migration occurred in masses has increased in recent years. The case of urban displacement is also not unheard of, although their numbers are much smaller in comparison to those of the rural IDP’s.

The problem that nations face because of the influx of refugees is not in any way different to those that the internally displaced people face within their homeland. The displaced individuals often live in deplorable conditions and in constant fear of what they might have to face next, and at times it may seem that there is no long-term solution in sight. Colombia’s economy has improved undoubtedly over the past decade, with betterment in the employment and education situation, but the problems of poverty and inequality in the distribution of income still remain critical. One-third of the nation still lives below the poverty line, but the situation of the IDP’s is far-far worse. Once they are forced to move, for a multitude of reasons, these groups of displaced individuals then face far greater difficulties in terms of trying to set up some sort of livelihood and sustain themselves in the already congested urban areas they migrate to. Heath-care is the area where these people probably suffer the worst, as they are unable to get the care they need and deserve.

Imagine that you are in your own backyard, in your own country and you don’t feel safe. There can be fighting and shooting at any moment and you will be forced to flee your home. This is a situation that not many of us can even think of; let alone going through the ordeal ourselves. But this has been the fate of roughly 300,000 people every year in Colombia for the past several years. And this is what the government in Colombia has had to deal with and try and solve in order to sustain as a nation.

In theory, and according to the Colombian law that was initially framed in 1997, the rights of all these displaced individuals are protected. It is one of the most well thought out frameworks on internal displacement in the world but that it is not as effective as it should be in terms of its implementation. A national system had been set up at the time which would deal with the needs of the displaced – Sistema Nacionalde Atención Integral a la Población Desplazada por la Violencia and the system of keeping a record – a database was also started. When the country’s displacement reached its peak in around 2004, the government was called out for its inaction and a number of new laws were created over the next few years, so that the properties of the displaced would be returned to them, as many as was possible, and the rest were given assistance, both monetary and in terms of social welfare.

As soon as Juan Manuel Santos took office as President in August 2010, he maintained solid pressure on the guerilla and the paramilitary organisations, a step, which proved to be momentous in terms of curbing the long drawn struggle between the FARC, the ELN and various other armed groups. Proper planning and a series of attacks later, by 2011, the number of members of FARC reduced hugely. Santos, unlike the previous leader Alvaro Uribe, fully understood the damage that this raging conflict had had on the Colombian society and its people, and formulated his policy based on this reading.

Beginning in 2011, there have been a series of peace talks between all sides involved in Havana, Cuba and a six-point agenda is being negotiated. This includes transitional justice, political participation and returning of the land to the IDP’s.

In order for proper restitution to happen, the most immediate task before the Colombian government was to return land to the internally displaced. And expedited administrative process was formulated under the Land Restitution Unit, whose duty it was to restore around two million hectares of land. And although there have been protests against this, in the name of “Anti-Restitution Army, there have been cases where restitution has been possible.

A historic law in 2013 by the Constitutional Court has now forced the government to recognise the numerous who have fled the organised crime groups and paramilitaries as IDP’s too. This has included many into the fold of the IDP tag and will thus enable them to avail the benefits that the Juan Manuel Santos government has promised them.

There have been numerous international organisations that have assisted Colombia in its humanitarian efforts, including UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees), the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross. The thing that needs to be done is that these international players act as neutral parties and try to coordinate the on-going peace talks. It might be true that the Colombian society has been ravaged with violence for the last 50 years or so, but the situation has taken a turn for the better. The government has taken significant steps, and with international assistance, the Colombians can hope that the internally displaced will finally be safe in their own country.

Pratiti Ganatra has completed her Masters in Mass Communication from the Symbiosis Institute Of Media and Communication, and has been with Kindle Magazine for the past two years. She likes to read and write on politics and history. She hopes that someday she will travel the world and write about it.

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