Conflict transformation and the urban displaced in Colombia
by Kimberly Howe December 2009

Trends in violence in Colombia have been changing over the past decade. Historically, the conflict has been fought mostly in rural areas. This has led to the massive displacement of rural populations to neighbouring rural areas, local cities and more distant urban areas. In recent years, however, the majority of violence (political and criminal) has taken place in urban areas, creating new forms of displacement. As a result, a full range of displacement patterns exist in Colombia: rural to rural; rural to peri-urban; rural to urban; and intra-urban, where individuals, families or whole neighbourhoods are forced to leave their homes and move to other areas in the same city, or perhaps to other urban areas. This article explores the phenomenon of urban displacement in Colombia and the challenges it poses to humanitarian action. A profiling tool for urban IDPs is discussed, drawing on the case of Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena Department.

Urban IDPs and the case of Santa Marta

Internally displaced people in urban centres comprise a largely hidden population, for a variety of reasons. Some prefer to stay anonymous, protecting themselves against armed groups or seeking to avoid clashes with other urban residents. Some arrive in search of employment and mix with other migrants and (often poor) urban dwellers. Still others are hosted by non-displaced relatives and friends. Many are not aware that their IDP status may afford them access to additional support and protection. Regardless of their circumstances and preferences, however, relatively little is known about urban IDPs, making it hard for humanitarian organisations to estimate their numbers, assess their assistance and protection needs or understand whether or how their situation differs from that of the urban poor. Without such baseline information, humanitarian organisations and governments face an enormous challenge in designing effective relief and protection programmes for these people.

Magdalena Department on Colombia’s Caribbean coast has one of the highest per capita rates of displacement in the country. From 1996 to 2004, Magdalena was the site of a major paramilitary campaign against guerrilla groups. Civilians were targeted by both sides and large numbers were displaced, in particular to Santa Marta. After the paramilitary demobilisation programme was implemented in 2006, Santa Marta became one of many areas in the country which has seen power struggles between demobilised paramilitaries, newly formed illegal armed groups and drug-traffickers, leading to new forms of insecurity for IDPs and other urban residents.[1] 

Despite these general facts, relatively little is known about IDPs in Santa Marta. How many displaced people are living in the city? How do they compare to their non-displaced neighbours? What are their livelihood characteristics and assistance and protection needs? To address these issues, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in  Geneva and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University created a profiling tool for urban IDPs, with Santa Marta as one of three case studies (the other two were Khartoum and Abidjan).

 The tool allows for an accurate estimation of the number of IDPs living in an urban area. By using a three-stage randomised sampling strategy, we found that between 56,055 and 75,839 people, or between 13.4% and 18.2%, in Santa Marta have been internally displaced. The study also provided evidence that Santa Marta’s IDPs fare worse than non-IDPs on almost all indicators of wellbeing.[2] For example, IDPs have lower levels of education than non-IDPs. While this is not surprising given that IDPs are mostly from rural areas, it does disadvantage them in terms of retaining a job in an urban setting. This is reflected in the finding that IDPs are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to have contractual employment than non-IDPs. Non-contractual employment is much less stable and secure, suggesting that IDPs’ livelihoods are more precarious than those of non-IDPs. IDPs were also less likely to own their own homes, their homes were inferior and they were less likely to have a direct water connection, increasing the risk of water-borne disease and making them more vulnerable to environmental shocks, such as floods and mudslides. IDPs were more likely to report problems with infrastructure and insecurity, and their relations with the authorities, communities and neighbours were likely to be more troublesome. Infrastructure problems include exposure to sewage or refuse, noise and lack of access to public transport. These findings also suggest that IDPs have less physical security than non-IDPs, and face significant stigmatisation and discrimination in their social environments. In short, IDPs experience lower levels of human security than non-IDPs.

In comparing IDPs and urban migrants (that is, people who migrated to Santa Marta for reasons not related to conflict), IDPs were more likely to have left or abandoned land, a house, a harvest, livestock and possessions in their home area. IDPs were more likely to anticipate problems should they try to return home than non-IDP migrants, including access to food, education, healthcare and housing in the return area, as well as problems with security. These findings are not surprising given that IDPs are more likely to have been forced to leave their homes quickly, without either liquidating their assets or bringing their assets with them. Insecurity in their home areas means that they have little prospect of recovering assets, putting them at a further disadvantage in urban areas.

All of these findings suggest that it makes sense to create IDP-specific programming in Santa Marta, as IDPs have significantly more problems with protection and have very specific vulnerabilities when it comes to livelihoods, housing and other dimensions of human security. As with any targeted programming, however, it must be balanced with the needs of other disadvantaged groups. Introducing resources into a resource-poor community can create competition, tension and resentment.

Government efforts

Since 1997, the government has provided some humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Efforts were increased after the Colombian Constitutional Court’s landmark decision in 2004, declaring that the government’s response to displacement was unconstitutional. Under new legislation and with increased funding, Accion Sociale was charged with providing assistance to IDPs. However, there are still concerns that significant numbers are not included in the registry, and barriers remain in accessing benefits. For example, there is a time limit within which IDPs must register after their displacement, and they are only considered displaced under certain circumstances (e.g. displacement due to drug-eradication efforts such as aerial fumigation, paramilitary activity and intra-urban displacement are not recognised). Long queues for registration determination and burdensome documentation requirements further limit access. Our study confirmed the concerns of humanitarians. We found that less than half (42%) of IDPs in Santa Marta have been included in the official IDP registry. When asked why they did not apply, IDPs reported that they did not know how to register, that they did not think doing so would be helpful or benefit them, or they did not think that the authorities would believe their displacement stories.

Generalising to other cities

There are limitations to the survey. First, the survey design did not allow us to explore sensitive issues such as problems related to registration, discrimination or harassment by non-state actors or authorities. We also had trouble generating a gender-representative sample, as we needed to conduct interviews during daylight for safety reasons, which produced a strong female bias. Furthermore, basing IDP estimates on the official government census data (gathered by DANE – Departamento Encargado de las Estadísticas en Colombia) for the city of Santa Marta meant that spillover or shanty areas were not included in our estimates, which probably created an under-estimate of IDPs in Santa Marta. Despite these limitations, however, this profiling tool is a promising methodology that can be utilised by humanitarian organisations and academic institutions in a variety of urban areas, within Colombia or elsewhere.

While the results of this profiling study could be helpful for service providers in Santa Marta, it is not immediately apparent how applicable they are to other cities in Colombia. One way of testing this is to identify some salient characteristics of Santa Marta, compare them with other Colombian cities and draw parallels between the two. In lieu of a proper matching study, we can still assume that certain themes identified in the Santa Marta study will translate to other cities. One such is the IDP registration process, which is administered by a single agency (Accion Sociale) across the country. In Santa Marta, less than half of the displaced population was included in the registration. It is likely that IDPs in other cities are also significantly under-represented. As such, it is important that humanitarians do not take this roster as an accurate and exhaustive list of IDPs in any given area. Other methods must be used to estimate their numbers.

 While there is much regional variation in the Colombian conflict, the main organised violent actors have a national presence and tend to employ similar tactics across the country. As mentioned above, paramilitaries and guerrillas displaced rural civilians as part of their campaigns in Magdalena Department, with many either immediately or subsequently displaced to Santa Marta. Our research showed that IDPs were disadvantaged compared to other urban migrants and the urban poor. Given the consistency in the behaviour of violent groups across the country, we can assume that IDPs in other urban areas are similarly disadvantaged.

Third, while many human rights organisations and humanitarians are aware of the problem of intra-urban displacement, there is as yet no systematic documentation of its scale or scope. Accion Sociale, the national organisation responsible for providing assistance to IDPs, does not include intra-urban displaced in the national IDP registry, nor do they receive benefits. This problem is further complicated because this form of displacement, along with general rates of violence, vary widely from city to city. Thus, it is very important that providers of humanitarian assistance have a nuanced understanding of conflict dynamics in specific urban areas. This means forging relationships not only with officials and other organisations, but also with the academics and research institutes that keep track of illegal armed groups.

This article has highlighted the challenges humanitarians face in attempting to operate effectively in exceedingly complicated situations, where the line between war and peace is not well-defined, where the conflict context is constantly changing and where it is unclear who is responsible for conflict, displacement and its aftermath. One useful step in facing these dilemmas is to obtain sound information, from rigorous methodologies. With urban IDPs, for example, humanitarians need to know how many there are, where they are, why they are displaced and what their protection and service needs are, both in general and in comparison to those around them. Accurate information not only assists in effective programming, but can also serve as a tool for lobbying the authorities to take proper responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Colombia. The urban IDP profiling tool described in this article is one means of achieving this goal. It is flexible enough to work with a variety of hidden populations in urban settings, and can be used by a number of different actors, including academics, international organisations, humanitarian agencies, governments and civil society groups.

Kimberly Howe is a PhD Candidate the Fletcher School, Tufts University, Medford, MA. The authors of the study are interested in further field testing this methodology, either independently or in partnership with humanitarian organisations. Please contact Kimberly at for further information.


[1] Karen Jacobsen and Kimberly Howe with IDMC, Rural Displacement to Urban Areas: The Tufts-IDMC Profiling Study: Santa Marta, Colombia, available at or

[2] All results discussed here were found to hold at least a statistical significance at the .05 level.