Colombian Refugees: Peace at Last?

July's installment of Refugees Around the World focuses on Colombian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). To read last month's article on Rohingya refugees, visit this link. On Thursday, June 23rd, after five long decades of armed conflict and civil war, the Colombian government signed a historic peace agreement with the Farc, Colombia's largest guerrilla organization. Colombians took to the streets in celebration, sure that peace was finally on the horizon after the world's longest war had killed 220,000, (mostly civilians) displaced six million, and caused another 750,000 to flee the country as refugees. Unfortunately, though, real stability is many long years away, and could easily be derailed by units within the Farc that are refusing to disarm.

History of the Columbian Conflict

The history of the Colombian conflict - like any long-running civil war - is extremely complex. After entire generations of war, it is all too easy to forget what you're fighting for and why you began fighting in the first place. But when civil war becomes part of a country's DNA, year after year it grows more difficult to turn back.

Many trace the birth of the present conflict to 1948 when a leader of the Liberal party was assassinated in Colombia's capital inciting mass riots that destroyed half of the city. The political turmoil focused on the uneven distribution of land between the rich and the poor in Colombia. For both cultural and economic reasons land ownership is very important and highly valued in Colombian society, and while both the Liberal and Conservative parties agreed that reform was necessary, they disagreed on how to execute that reform. The result of their disagreement was ten years of nation-wide violence referred to simply as La Violencia.

A truce was finally reach between the parties in which they agree to "take turns" and share their power. Though effective at stemming violence in the cities for a time, the rural poor felt left out and unrepresented. Those who had created militias during La Violencia refused to surrender their weapons and proclaimed "independent republics in the countryside. The central government attacked the largest of these republics in 1964, which only made them more determined to reform Colombia's government through Marxist ideologies. They quickly reorganized as the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia, now known as the Farc.

Over the next few years several more leftist guerrilla organizations emerged, all of which became involved in the illegal growth and trafficking of drugs to fund their operations. In the late 70s and early 80s the Colombian government softened toward these guerrilla organizations in an attempt to negotiate peace. Their leniency created the perfect environment for the far-right to create paramilitary forces to fight back against the guerrillas. Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel also rose to power in the late 70s and later fought against the government, paramilitaries, and the guerrillas to secure their wealth and continue their drug trafficking operation.

In 2002 Colombia elected a new president who cracked down on the guerrillas with financial assistance from the US and eventually disarmed tens of thousands of paramilitary members. Now Colombia's current president, Juan Santos, elected in 2010, has succeeded in negotiating a peace deal with the Farc that was signed just three weeks ago.

Columbian Refugees and IDPs

Throughout the conflict civilians have been targeted for various reasons. The government and paramilitary forces accused rural citizens of "collaborating" with the guerrillas, and the guerrillas kidnapped civilians and stole their land to fund their operations and advance their cause, as well as targeting wealthy politicians and landowners. Numbers of IDPs steadily rose, with the last count documenting between six and seven million. Most fled the lawless countryside for the safer and heavily populated urban areas. Those who had no family or friends to stay with were forced to find temporary shelter, and thousands built entirely new neighborhoods (read: slums) on the outskirts of Colombia's largest cities. Resources are scarce for those who live in these makeshift neighborhoods, and for many the government refused to provide basic necessities like water, food, and electricity.

Between 500,000 and 750,000 Colombian's have fled the country, with half settling in Ecuador while the rest seek refuge in Panama, Venezuela, Peru, and even Brazil. Only 360,000 of Colombian refugees are legally recognized as such, so most have struggled to survive due to lack of aid and having to find work illegally. The US, though financially generous toward Colombia at various times throughout the conflict, has failed to respond favorably toward Colombians in need of resettlement to a third country. In 2009 the US resettled a measly 57 Colombians when an estimated 16,000 (mostly women at risk of human trafficking and unaccompanied minors) were in need of resettlement.

Why Are Colombian Refugees "Invisible"

The purpose of this article is to shed light on the plights of millions of people in our own hemisphere who have been largely invisible. Syria is the only other country in the world that has more internally displaced individuals than Colombia, and their civil war only started five years ago, while Colombians have been living in fear and uncertainty for five decades. Why have Colombian refugees and IDPs been so invisible?

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has fled their country because of a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The US accepts refugees for resettlement based solely on this definition, and because of the extremely complex conflict in Colombia and the indiscriminate violence toward civilians at the hands of both guerrillas and paramilitary forces, it is next to impossible for Colombian refugees to "prove" their eligibility for resettlement.

What most people do not know, though, is that the definition of a refugee was amended by a conference  in 1984 attended by the UN a various Latin American countries. They produced and signed a document called the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees which expands the definition of a refugee to include those who are outside their country "due to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity, and freedom because of generalized violence or events seriously disturbing the public order." While this definition easily includes all those displaced by Colombia's ongoing conflict, the US does not recognize this expansion of the definition since they were not part of the original conference.

It would be wonderful if countries like the US were to recognize the Cartagena Declaration's expanded definition of refugees, since it would make resettlement an option for thousands of vulnerable individuals throughout Central and South America. Not only would many more Colombian's have been resettled over the last fifty years, but thousands of young children forced into gangs in Guatemala and other countries would be able to grow up in safety with access to education. I cannot help but wonder if the US government has opted not to recognize the expanded definition so that she will not be held responsible for the suffering of people with such easy access to her borders.


Colombia's sorrows are far from over, and while a signed peace agreement between the government and the Farc is a major step in the right direction, the situation is still extremely volatile. Colombian refugees and IDPs have been largely invisible for fifty years, but perhaps the best way for us to celebrate this turning point with them is to open our eyes and recognize that they will continue to need the assistance of the international community for many years as they begin the long process of repatriation and reconstruction.

Sources and Further Reading

A short history of the Colombian conflict. 

Videos from the UNHCR highlighting the experiences of three Colombian IDP's.

An excellent long-form piece from the Guardian on Colombia's conflict.

Image Source: Wikimedia