Colombia’s Humanitarian Crisis

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.

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Executive Summary

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”.

Bogotá/Brussels, 9 July 2003

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