Colombia - 2008

Refugees International Japan visits refugee communities around the world on a regular basis so that we can see at first hand the kind of impact your donations have. We are used to hearing bad news from countries affected by war. However, the people we meet, who are doing their best for their families and their communities, always impress our teams. Their resilience is amazing. The programs we fund help them to rebuild their lives and prepare for the return home.


This was the first visit made by Refugees International Japan to Colombia. Colombia has the second largest displaced population in the world after Sudan. However, external awareness of displacement as a problem in Colombia is very low. Our team investigated the issues facing displaced people and security problems of returning in Arauca (north east), Nariño (south west) and Tolima (south of Bogotà). Everywhere we found that the problem is an ongoing one, and in some areas the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) is growing. Subsequent to this visit, we are evaluating funding proposals from a number of community-based projects.

Size of problem
2-3 million IDPs out of a population of 43 million – 1.5 million officially registered. It is clear that many IDPs choose not to register for fear of reprisals from the community. 74% are thought to be women and children.

Reasons for displacement
For 40 years, both guerrillas and paramilitaries have depopulated rural areas and appropriated the land for political, economic and strategic gain. Upon seizing control of an area, armed groups often kill or displace civilians they suspect of supporting the opposing side. Families live in fear of their children being abducted to fight or serve as mistresses to fighters.

Camp situation
The vast majority of those displaced are dispersed rather than living in organized camps, and many seek anonymity in the big cities. Almost 40% have settled in and around the ten largest cities. Ibagué in Tolima receives one of the highest inflows of IDPs in Colombia because of its geographic position and it is known to be peaceful In all areas we found some camps with no electricity and clean water, as local authorities regarded them as illegal settlements.

Reasons for slow/non-return
Many return areas continue to be under the control of at least one irregular armed group and near to coca cultivation areas. Numerous returned IDPs have been killed in recent years – or forced to flee again. In some areas, particularly in Nariño, landmines have cut off all access to villages. Colombia has the highest number of new mine-related casualties in the world, with more than 1,100 in 2006.

Problems for IDPs
If they are not registered they receive no official help, and if they are registered they generally receive help for just three months. It can take a month for registration to be accepted and no official help is often given during this period.
They are rural people without skills for urban employment and they can be stigmatized by the host communities – which is another reason for failing to register as IDPs. Concern Universal, based in Ibagué since 1993, is one of the few long-term non-goernment organisations actively helping IDPs to set up income-generating projects.
In all areas lack of classroom space and teachers, as well as fees, prevent some IDP children from attending school. The International Rescue Committee, an international non-government organization, is working to assist with emergency education facilities in areas of high displacement.
We found well-meaning local authorities to be overwhelmed by the size of the problem and constrained by lack of funds and infrastructure.

Our team met many people during our visit. These are some of their stories.

IDP representative, Saravena, Arauca:
“On 6 January FARC killed the president of the community and another man in front of everyone. Then they gave everyone 10 days to leave or they would be killed.”

Camp IDP, Saravena, Arauca:
 “We have been here 7 months. We have no support, no electricity – just plastic
 tents and canvas. There are 320 families so water and sanitation are problems.”

IDP woman, Saravena, Arauca:
“The guerillas stole my food and money, everything from the house, and killed my husband while I was away. My daughter saw everything.”

Camp IDP, Samaniego, Nariño:
“My family were pressured by the guerillas to work our land, and then accused by other guerillas of supporting the first group. We were told to join the second group or leave. We had 3-4 hours to leave.”

Camp IDP, Samaniego, Nariño:
“I had to leave home because farmers were being targeted. The problem is that you have to be for everyone: if you eradicate coca crops you upset the guerillas, and if you don’t you upset the government. It is not an option for me to return. I haven’t been on my land for a while and will be treated with suspicion.”