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Colombia’s Humanitarian Crisis

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This ICG report argues that it is paramount that much more decisive action be taken immediately to confront Colombia’s humanitarian crisis. Massive human hardship and suffering has become a constant feature of life as the armed conflict has expanded and intensified. The government’s humanitarian policy has encountered many difficulties, largely because of the magnitude of the crisis, the lack of state capacity, the reluctance to divert fiscal resources from military to social programs, and the wide gap between policy planning and reality.

The launching of the Inter-agency Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) by the UN in 2002 reflects a growing international awareness that more coordinated and effective action is urgently needed. But even more needs to be done, including achieving better coordination between the government and humanitarian organisations and increasing current levels of international humanitarian aid.

Colombia faces a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented dimensions. In 2002, forced internal displacement, following a sharp upward trend since 2000, reached an all time high: approximately 320,000 persons were obligated to leave their homes and seek shelter in other parts of the country from the escalating armed conflict. During the first three months of 2003, an estimated additional 90,000 persons have been displaced. Half were assisted by the ICRC. An estimated 100,000 Colombians fled to the neighbouring countries between 2000 and 2002.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 children are enrolled in the ranks of the irregular armed groups, anti-personnel mine incidents/accidents are on the rise, and many communities across the country are either blockaded, controlled or under siege from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the paramilitaries. Meanwhile, the government’s armed forces are restricting the free circulation of gasoline, medicines, food stuffs and other basic provisions in war-affected areas as part of their military strategy to subdue the armed groups.

Recent shifts in strategy by both the government and the armed groups have had a direct impact on these conditions. The war strategy of the latter is designed to control strategic corridors. In its pursuit, they have acted in total disregard of the deaths and injuries inflicted on non-combatants. In rural areas, they have sought to deny sanctuary to their opponents and been willing to terrorise local populations to accomplish that goal. The Uribe government’s determined “democratic security policy” was initiated to deny the armed groups their objectives and re-establish legitimate state authority in places where it has been absent for decades.

All of this causes severe hardship among civilians, who are systematically targeted by the armed groups, suffering displacement, abduction, disappearance, extortion and torture. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and blockaded or isolated communities also often find it impossible to gain access to basic social services, such as health care, sanitation, housing and education. Food and other basic provisions are also often in short supply, and IDPs suffer malnutrition and illness. The situation is further aggravated by precarious or non-existent social services, wide-spread poverty and unemployment in large parts of rural Colombia as well as many peripheral urban neighbourhoods. Frequently, communities and municipalities that receive IDPs or economic migrants from rural areas are unable to provide them the needed assistance.

While not insensitive to the humanitarian crisis, during its first eleven months the Uribe administration has given priority to implementing its “democratic security policy” and also focused its energies on designing and implementing political and economic reform and fiscal austerity policies. The government agency in charge of coordinating the state’s assistance to IDPs as well as their return, the Social Solidarity Network (RSS), is overburdened and has not received adequate support from the nineteen state institutions that comprise the National System of Integral Assistance to the Population Displaced by Violence (SNAIPD). In consequence, more than half the new IDPs received no government assistance in 2002; indeed, many were not even registered.

In the context of the current escalation of the armed conflict, it also has to be asked whether the Uribe administration’s humanitarian policy emphasis on promoting and facilitating the return of IDPs is appropriate. Although the government claims that 7,218 displaced families have returned to their homes since it took office, it is questionable whether returning represents a real option for the great remainder of IDPs. The three basic conditions for a successful return – that it be safe, voluntary and supported by economic and social reintegration/re-establishment programs – are difficult for the government to guarantee under prevailing circumstances. The government should strongly consider the resettlement of IDPs in their new places of residence and the design and implementation of a comprehensive rural development strategy as part of the “democratic security policy”.


To the Government of Colombia:

    1. Strengthen cooperation between the state institutions that integrate the SNAIPD and increase its effectiveness, in part by increasing cooperation with organised civil society.

    1. Seek to raise U.S.$1 billion over several years for food security, basic rural housing, victims of violence compensation, and educational and health programs and guarantee that the state institutions comprising the SNAIPD earmark sufficient funds for activities and programs related to IDP assistance and stabilisation.

    1. Guarantee that all registered IDPs receive public assistance as stipulated in Law 387 and adopt a differentiated assistance approach, focussing on children, women and ethnic groups.

    1. Improve the system for registering IDPs, expand its scope and generate more and better information on forced internal displacement.

    1. Strengthen judicial institutions, the ombudsman’s office and other institutions responsible for fundamental human rights, and implement all obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law covenants to which Colombia is party, including recognising the distinction between combatants and non-combatants and providing access for humanitarian relief to non-combatants.

    1. Improve the performance of the Early Warning System by raising the political level of the Inter-Institutional Committee that directs it and assure close monitoring by the Vice President’s Office of responses to risk assessments and warnings.

    1. Guarantee the safe and voluntary return of IDPs as well as integration/reconstruction assistance to all returnee communities, including vocational training, income-generating projects and psychosocial assistance.

    1. Provide IDPs with integration and reconstruction support in their new places of residence when adequate conditions to permit safe and sustainable return home do not exist, and assist receiving communities and municipalities to integrate IDPs.

    1. Design and implement a comprehensive rural development strategy, with priority for war-affected and border regions and focusing on citizen registration, social development (health care, education, housing, sanitation and infrastructure), legalisation of land titles and income-generating measures.

    1. Increase efforts at detecting anti-personnel mines, warning the civilian population about their existence and clearing mined areas.

    1. Permit the free circulation of food stuffs, gasoline, medicines and other basic provisions in war-affected regions, even at the risk that some will benefit the irregular armed groups.

    1. Increase efforts geared at guaranteeing respect for human rights and severing ties between the armed forces and the paramilitaries.

    1. Collaborate closely with the governments of the neighbouring countries and UNHCR in the protection and safe return of Colombian refugees.

    To the United Nations:

    1. Increase inter-agency efforts at implementing and improving the UN’s Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) in cooperation with the government and domestic and international humanitarian aid organisations and give special attention to increasing UN presence in war-affected and risk regions.

    1. Promote strongly the Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) in order to ensure funding for the HAP in 2004, and beyond.

    1. Continue with the systematic generation and dissemination of information and analyses on the humanitarian crisis, including by establishing close cooperation with the National Information Network of the government’s Social Solidarity Network (RSS).

    1. Provide emergency and other assistance such as legal counsel to Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in the neighbouring countries.

    To domestic and international humanitarian aid organisations in Colombia:

    1. Continue and expand humanitarian aid cooperation with the government, focussing on emergency and post-emergency assistance as well as socio-economic stabilisation of IDPs.

    1. Conduct regular and rigorous evaluations of the progress of aid projects and coordinate action so as to produce synergy.

    To the international donor community:

    1. Support the government, international and multilateral organisations, the Churches and NGOs with funds, personnel and expertise in order to alleviate and overcome the humanitarian crisis.

    1. Fund fully the UN’s Consolidated Appeal for humanitarian aid for Colombia.

    1. Encourage and support the government in designing, implementing and funding a rural development strategy that can both discourage displacement now and make the successful return of displaced persons possible when safety can be guaranteed.

    To the irregular armed groups:

    1. Abide by the norms of international humanitarian law, and in particular end the targeting of civilians, the expulsion, blockade and siege of civilian communities, and the use of mines where civilians are at risk.

    1. Respect and do not interfere with humanitarian aid operations, including medical missions and food aid deliveries.

    1. Stop recruiting children and hand over child soldiers to the authorities so that they can be rehabilitated.

    Bogotá/Brussels, 9 July 2003


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