A report by David Anderson

Surveying the wreckage that has been left in the wake of the conflict in Colombia, throughout changes in the factions, motivations and methods, it is apparent that the overwhelming suffering of the civilian population has been one of the few constants. Of the almost 220,000 people killed, more than 175,000 have been civilians (Isacson 2014: 7). And although there are disparities between assessments - and a general acceptance that statistics are subject to a large margin of error - the cumulative number of persons displaced by the conflict is estimated at somewhere between 5,900,000 and 6,900,00 (Núnez and Hurtado 2014; NRC 2015; UNHCR 2015). Alarmingly, despite demobilisation of the paramilitaries and a decrease in large-scale clashes between the government and rebels, displacement has continued at an average rate of 200,000 people per year from 2010-2014 (Núnez and Hurtado 2014; NRC 2015). This is attributable to the fact that actual physical violence or instances of armed confrontation between different groups account for only some of the displacement events. Rather, direct threats of violence represent over 50% of the documented reasons for displacement, together with an increasing impact from natural disasters such as flooding and landslides (IDMC/NRC 2011: 11, 20). Other groups have also used forcible displacement as a means to free up land for purposes such as drug cultivation and production, mineral extraction (mining and oil) and large scale agricultural projects (Mundt and Ferris 2008; Carrillo 2009; de Geoffroy 2009; IDMC/NRC 2011; Derks-Normandin 2014). In addition to this, state strategies for halting the production of cocaine by destroying coca plantations have also directly caused the displacement of local communities, with the aerial fumigation of coca crops in jungle areas particularly impacting rural communities through collateral damage to land vital for livelihoods and subsistence, such as crops or farmland (Rincón-Ruiz and Kallis 2013). This indicates that whilst a peace deal may somewhat reduce levels of displacement, there are other root causes which may continue regardless – such as natural disasters – or even intensify if former FARC fighters further swell the numbers of narcotic gangs.

Historically, displacement has occurred primarily within rural areas, and concentrated amongst younger people, those with families, landowners and the poor (Mundt and Ferris 2008; Carrillo 2009; Núnez and Hurtado 2014; NRC 2015). There has also been an increasingly disproportionate impact upon Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, with the numbers displaced showing a sharp increase from the year 2000 onwards (IDMC/NRC 2011: 27). These communities predominately live in rural areas on land which is of interest to agricultural and mining corporations, or narcotics gangs who need to control trafficking corridors and growing areas (Derks-Normandin 2014). In both cases these are often powerful groups who are either able to leverage the relative lack of land rights and social protection for these communities in order to dispossess them of land through legal channels, or employ armed groups to extort, threaten and kill local leaders and those who resist (Escobar 2003; Ossa et al. 2007; Mundt and Ferris 2008; Grajales 2011; IDMC/NRC 2011). Unsurprisingly, permanent loss of land - which is bound up with cultural significance, social relationships and subsistence livelihoods – is often a direct result, and it is estimated that more than 50% of displaced persons in Colombia previously owned land (IDMC/NRC 2011: 37). The relative ease with which large tracts of land can be seized in these ways means that the area of land lost is currently estimated at more than 6,000,000 hectares or 60,000km2 – between 5-6% of Colombia’s total size (HRW 2013). Although there have been attempts to facilitate the restitution of this land by the Colombian state – with legislation introduced in 2011 and 2013[1] – significant obstacles remain in identifying who has been displaced, and determining whether or not their return is feasible. Many displaced persons are reluctant to return[2] either due to fear, or because their homes have been occupied or destroyed and their land rendered unusable; for instance through fumigation of coca crops or soil exhaustion from mono-culture plantations (Mundt and Ferris 2008; IDMC/NRC 2011; Ferris 2014). Combined with increasing incidents of multiple displacement, where families have to repeatedly flee from different locations, there is a risk for many people that displacement will simply become permanent, and their original home lost altogether (Derks-Normandin 2014: 9-10).


Support and Challenges


People who successfully register with government-run Registro Unico de Víctimas (Central Registry of Victims) as an internally displaced person (IDP) receive emergency aid for 3-6 months consisting of; food, hygiene items, assistance with rent, and psychosocial care. They are also able to access assistance for programmes of education, health, training and income-generating support with the objective of making registered IDPs self-sufficient after this period of time. Those who have been rejected from registering as displaced, or who have chosen not to do so, are only able to access the standard welfare system. Other national organisations and international aid agencies do provide varying levels of support to both registered and unregistered IDPs, covering areas of food, housing, health and education, again ranging from 3-6 months in duration (Carrillo 2009; Fagen 2011; Ferris 2014). There are numerous international aid agencies such as UNHCR and NRC present within Colombia, either supporting the Colombian government in various capacities toward the implementation of state programs and assistance, or undertaking projects of their own.

Despite the number of organisations, laws and policies that are present within Colombian society, there are still considerable obstacles to the successful provision of aid and support for IDPs. The often complicated situation, with multiple armed actors and often weak state protection, hinders the provision of aid and reparation of land in isolated areas of the country. The issue of reparations in itself can also generate further conflict with resistance from new owners to restitution of occupied land, and problems of resolving ‘illegal’ land settlement within urban areas. There are also fears that the impending peace deal will further reduce the visibility of those affected, leading to decreased international and state support, together with a danger that the specific needs caused by displacement will be lost through displaced persons becoming subsumed under a broader category of ‘victims’ of the conflict (Ferris 2014: 37-41). If displacement becomes absorbed into more general issues of poverty then it is possible that whilst forms of emergency aid for alleviating poverty may continue, focus on particularities such as re-establishing livelihoods and self-subsistence could be lost (Fagen 2011: 42-45).

The historical trend of displacement as concentrated within rural areas, combined with a lack of clarity over how best to assist displaced persons within Colombia, means that there are very real implications for those affected. The permanent loss of land entails a loss of livelihoods, often together with a loss of home as a place of cultural significance or social networks and relationships. Combined with suspicion or fear of authorities, and the sheer scale of displacement within Colombia, people who have been forcibly displaced may fall between the cracks of a bureaucracy of support, which whilst comprehensive across legal and political terms, struggles with implementation on the ground.


Urban Displacement in Colombia


The vast majority of people who are displaced within Colombia travel to large towns or cities, with around 90% settling in urban areas(IDMC/NRC 2011: 32). Cities are– in theory – able to offer better access to support mechanisms from aid organisations and the state, together with basic necessities such as employment, healthcare, education and housing (Mundt and Ferris 2008; Carrillo 2009; Fagen 2011; Núnez and Hurtado 2014; NRC 2015). However, with no major camps housing displaced populations Colombia has seen an increasingly “silent” proliferation of individuals and families throughout urban centres, reflected in considerable uncertainty amongst state and aid bureaucracies as to the scale and nature of displacement, and the best way to identify and address the needs and vulnerabilities of those affected (de Geoffroy 2009; Albuja and Ceballos 2010; Fagen 2011; NRC 2015). The rising influence of narcotics gangs operating within cities also means that Colombia is witnessing an increasing urbanisation of conflict, with intra-urban displacement rising from 1% of cases in 1999 to 36% in 2011 (NRC/IDMC 2014: 41-42; Núnez and Hurtado 2014: 3). This figure is likely to be even higher in reality, as many cases of intra-urban displacement are misreported as voluntary movement, with only mass displacement events making this truly visible (Núnez and Hurtado 2014: 4). Given that most urban displacement is at the individual level, however, much of this is undocumented and with few or no alternatives available most of the individuals affected will remain in an urban setting, either within the same municipality or travelling to another town or city (IDMC/NRC 2011).

Women in particular value the potential opportunities that cities offer in terms of employment and gender equality (Mundt and Ferris 2008), a salient point given that the displaced population of Colombia has a higher numbers of female-headed households; 43.3% versus 29.9% for the national average, of which 67.8% have no spouse present (Meertens 2012: 6). This by no means makes the city safer than rural areas for displaced women, who are still exposed to risks of physical and sexual abuse, together with labour exploitation through involvement in the informal economy (IDMC/NRC 2011; Meertens 2012). Female-headed households also experience higher levels of poverty, with more than 86% of these households living in extreme poverty (IDMC/NRC 2011). Poverty is the overwhelming norm for displaced families making the rural-urban transition, however, as many fail to re-establish livelihoods and find regular sources of employment (Carrillo 2009; IDMC/NRC 2011; NRC 2015)[3]. In combination with the loss of other assets, the simple financial costs of displacement can range from a third of total assets, up to 80% losses for more impoverished households (Ibáñez and Vélez 2008). Whilst many families will have experienced poverty as a relatively low level of income prior to displacement, land to grow food and subsistence crops acted as a mitigating factor in the effects of this. Displacement and the loss of land and homes therefore combine with new pressures from the urban environment (expenditures for rent, food, utilities and transport), to deepen and exacerbate conditions of poverty (Carrillo 2009). Consequently, food insecurity is a common problem, with 65% of families in 2010 reporting eating fewer than three meals a day, or having limited access to food aid programs and edible food (Carrillo 2009; IDMC/NRC 2011).  Perhaps the single most notable loss for displaced persons, which is often keenly experienced following the move to urban areas, is the loss of home and shelter. Despite aid agencies and state assistance for housing, available subsidies and supply of housing still falls far short of demand, and the instability of many displaced persons circumstances means that even where housing is available, it may not be feasible for use for economic or security reasons (Fagen 2011: 55-56). As a result, many families and individuals live in often self-constructed dwellings within slum-like conditions around the peripheries of developed urban areas (Carrillo 2009; Fagen 2011).

The ability to access aid and state support, particularly in larger towns such as Bogotá, can offer many families much needed assistance during the initial months following displacement. However, the peripheral areas of the city that are often the first destination on arrival suffer from a lack of services, infrastructure and security that in themselves create significant challenges to negotiating a loss of home and livelihoods. Whilst there is improved access to labour markets and the informal economy, wages are low and employment insecure, resulting in widespread poverty not only for people who have been displaced, but the wider communities where they have settled. This in turn can impact upon processes of integration and settlement, with increased competition for jobs and resources. The rural-urban transition that often follows displacement is therefore capable of bringing both benefits and drawbacks for the individuals and families concerned. With an impending peace deal between FARC and the Colombian state looking increasingly likely (Brodzinsky 2015), it remains to be seen how issues of land reparation, justice and protection for displaced persons will be resolved. However, given the huge numbers of persons affected, increasing intra-urban displacement and the growing influence of narcotics gangs, important challenges still remain to finding durable and meaningful resolutions for displacement within Colombia.




Albuja, Sebastián, and Marcela Ceballos. 2010. “Urban Displacement and Migration in Colombia.” Forced Migration Review, no. 34 (February): 10–11.

Brodzinsky, Sibylla. 2015. “Farc Peace Talks: Colombia Nears Historic Deal after Agreement on Justice and Reparations.” The Guardian, September 24, sec. World news. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/24/farc-peace-talks-colombia-nears-historic-deal-after-agreement-on-justice-and-reparations.

Carrillo, Angela Consuelo. 2009. “Internal Displacement in Colombia: Humanitarian, Economic and Social Consequences in Urban Settings and Current Challenges.” International Review of the Red Cross 91 (875): 527–46. doi:10.1017/S1816383109990427.

de Geoffroy, Agnès. 2009. “Fleeing War and Relocating to the Urban Fringe – Issues and Actors: The Cases of Khartoum and Bogotá.” International Review of the Red Cross 91 (875): 509–26. doi:10.1017/S1816383109990361.

Derks-Normandin, Maria. 2014. “Building Peace in the Midst of Violence: Improving Security and Finding Durable Solutions to Displacement in Colombia.” The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/09/16-colombia-peacebuilding-displacement-derks.

Escobar, Arturo. 2003. “Displacement, Development, and Modernity in the Colombian Pacific.” International Social Science Journal 55 (175): 5–5. doi:10.1111/1468-2451.5501019_14.

Fagen, Patricia. 2011. “Colombian IDPs in Protracted Displacement: Is Local Integration a Solution?” In Resolving Internal Displacement: Prospects for Local Integration. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2011/6/01%20protracted%20displace%20local/resolving_id_prospects_for_local_integration_june2011.pdf.

Ferris, Elizabeth. 2014. “Changing Times: The International Response to Internal Displacement in Colombia.” Brookings Institute. http://resourcecentre.savethechildren.se/sites/default/files/documents/54cb8df38.pdf.

Grajales, Jacobo. 2011. “The Rifle and the Title: Paramilitary Violence, Land Grab and Land Control in Colombia.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (4): 771–92. doi:10.1080/03066150.2011.607701.

HRW. 2013. “The Risk of Returning Home.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/09/17/risk-returning-home/violence-and-threats-against-displaced-people-reclaiming-land.

Ibáñez, Ana María, and Carlos Eduardo Vélez. 2008. “Civil Conflict and Forced Migration: The Micro Determinants and Welfare Losses of Displacement in Colombia.” World Development 36 (4): 659–76. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2007.04.013.

IDMC/NRC. 2011. “COLOMBIA: Property Restitution in Sight but Integration Still Distant.” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. http://www.internal-displacement.org/americas/colombia/2011/colombia-property-restitution-in-sight-but-integration-still-distant-december-2011.

Isacson, Adam. 2014. “Ending 50 Years of Conflict in Colombia: The Challenges Ahead and the U.S. Role in Colombia.” Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America - WOLA. http://www.wola.org/publications/ending_50_years_of_conflict.

Meertens, Donny. 2012. “Forced Displacement and Gender Justice in Colombia: Between Disproportional Effects of Violence and Historical Injustice.” Case Studies on Transitional Justice and Displacement. ICTJ/Brookings-LSE. https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Brookings-Displacement-Gender-Colombia-CaseStudy-2012-English.pdf.

Mundt, Alex, and Elizabeth Ferris. 2008. “Durable Solutions for IDPs in Protracted Situations: Three Case Studies.” The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2008/10/28-internal-displacement-mundt.

NRC. 2015. “NRC Colombia Fact Sheet - July 2015.” Norwegian Refugee Council. http://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9208032.pdf.

NRC/IDMC. 2014. “Global Overview 2014: People Internally Displaced by Conflict and Violence.” http://www.internal-displacement.org/assets/publications/2014/201405-global-overview-2014-en.pdf.

Núnez, C. E., and I. P. Hurtado. 2014. “El Desplazamiento Forzado En Colombia: La Huella Del Conflicto.” CODHES. http://www.codhes.org/images/Articulos/AnalisisSituacionalfinal.pdf.

Ossa, Serje de la, Margarita Rosa, Ashley Caja, Rebecca Natolini, Laura Moll Rexach, and Christopher Britt-Arredondo. 2007. “Iron Maiden Landscapes: The Geopolitics of Colombia’s Territorial Conquest.” South Central Review 24 (1): 37–55. doi:10.1353/scr.2007.0016.

Rincón-Ruiz, Alexander, and Giorgos Kallis. 2013. “Caught in the Middle, Colombia’s War on Drugs and Its Effects on Forest and People.” Geoforum 46 (May): 60–78. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.12.009.

UNHCR. 2015. “UNHCR - Colombia.” http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492ad6.html.

[1] The initial 2011 law covered restitution of land only in cases of displacement by guerrilla groups, but this was expanded in 2013 to cover instances where land has been seized by bacrim groups (Ferris 2014: 25).

[2] Available data suggests only 3% of displaced persons would return home (Derks-Normandin 2014: 11).

[3] There is disparity in the figures available– in 2009 it was estimated that 99% lived in poverty, and of these 85% in conditions of extreme poverty (Carrillo 2009). In 2011 this was placed at 97.6% and 78.8% respectively (IDMC/NRC 2011). In 2015, however, the numbers drop significantly to 68% and 33% (NRC 2015). It is not immediately apparent if this is due to changes in measurement, analysis, or the success of aid and state programs of assistance.