Displacement and return in Colombia
by December 2009

Colombia is in the throes of one of the world’s largest crises of internal displacement. Since the mid-1990s, more than 3.2 million people have been displaced. On average, between 2000 and 2009 300,000 people a year fled in search of protection. In 2008, 294,000 left their places of residence. In late 2008, the government estimated that nearly 40,000 households (176,000 people) had returned to their places of origin with the accompaniment of the authorities.

 The official Information System on the Displaced Population in Colombia is one of the most highly developed such systems in the world (www.accionsocial.gov.co). However, it does not include data on households that have achieved lasting solutions through their return. The precariousness of figures on returns generates a distortion: there are estimates of the number of people who have been displaced, but not of how many of them remain in displacement. The absence of such information creates a gap in protection to the extent that little is known about the conditions in which returnees are living.

The government’s returns policy

Thirteen years after Colombia enacted a law on displaced persons (Law 387 of 1997), state policy regarding return has yet to be consolidated. In 2006, the Constitutional Court identified lack of security as one of the gravest defects of the returns policy. Flaws in the implementation of this policy persisted in 2008, leading the Court to order once again that these problems be corrected (the ruling is Auto 08 of 2009). In response, the government presented the general guidelines of its policy on returns in October 2009. The government bases its policy on six axes: (i) security; (ii) participation by the displaced population; (iii) recognition of different needs – of women, boys, girls and adolescents, indigenous people, Afro-descendants and the disabled; (iv) coordination between the central government and municipalities; (v) information systems to guarantee follow-up on the policy and to evaluate progress in stabilising communities; and (v) effective enjoyment of rights (goce efectivo de derechos or GED in Spanish).

The GED criterion is one of the Constitutional Court’s most important contributions. According to this criterion, policies must be designed to guarantee the displaced population’s enjoyment of their rights, beginning with their rights to life and personal integrity and security and including adequate assistance to enable them to achieve dignified and independent living conditions in order to re-establish their circumstances prior to displacement.

 The policy on returns establishes 12 components to achieve the effective enjoyment of rights: (i) access to housing subsidy programmes; (ii) access to productive land through the recovery of abandoned land and the legal formalisation of ownership; (iii) inclusion of the population within the healthcare system; (iv) education for children under the age of 15; (v) rehabilitation of access routes to places of return; (vi) assistance in obtaining access to justice to make rights to truth, justice and reparation effective; (vii) basic public utilities, such as electricity, water and sewerage services; (viii) access to sufficient and adequate food; (ix) access to income and employment; (x) humanitarian accompaniment, which is seen as a guarantee for the exercise of returnees’ rights; (xi) support for social organisation; and (xii) psychosocial help for returned communities.

 One of the policy’s most important instruments is the protocol on return, the correct application of which would guarantee the principles of voluntariness, security and dignity. The protocol defines five phases: (i) exploratory, in which initial agreement is reached between the communities and the authorities to advance towards return; (ii) analysis of the situation, in which the causes of displacement, security conditions and the needs of the population are evaluated; (iii) preparation, which includes visits with the community to the place of origin, and in which institutional commitments are defined; (iv) return; and (v) follow-up, in which the conditions of the returning population and the rate at which entities fulfil their commitments is evaluated.

 In order to comprehensively apply this policy, the government has prioritised the consolidation of 25 return processes involving around 35,000 people. The new return policy is correct in focusing on following up on returns that have already been carried out. In the past many such returns have not been consolidated because of weak institutional accompaniment. To guarantee the policy’s impact, the current pattern, in which returns are promoted and carried out but institutional efforts later fall off, must be addressed.

Obstacles to return

The main restriction on returns as a lasting solution stems from the continuing conflict and high level of violence, despite progress in indicators regarding kidnapping, massacres and murders. Whereas in 2002 there were 2,986 kidnappings, 115 massacres and 28,837 homicides, in 2008 the state recorded 437 kidnappings, 37 massacres and 16,140 homicides.

 The last four years have seen a transformation in the conflict as a result of the increased capabilities of the government’s military forces and the near-total demobilisation of paramilitary groups. However, most of the causes of displacement persist or have been transformed. To counteract the expanded capabilities of the military, insurgent groups have increased their use of anti-personnel mines, while bringing greater pressure to bear on communities, particularly those taking part in state programmes associated with the substitution of illicit crops or collaborating with the security forces.

 The impact of demobilisation has not yielded the hoped-for results in terms of reduced violence: numerous armed groups, many linked to drug-trafficking, operate in zones abandoned by demobilised actors, fighting for control over the production, processing and trafficking of drugs. The difficulty in identifying chains of command and command structures has facilitated the proliferation of threats against public officials, human rights defenders, community and social leaders and ordinary people, forcing many into flight.

 Conditions are difficult in the municipalities where returns have been undertaken. For example, in 115 municipalities where returns have been carried out, 306,000 people were expelled between 2006 and 2009. During the same period, 1,157 were injured by explosive artefacts. In 95% of these 115 principalities there were incidents involving explosive devices. The homicide rate in 52 of those municipalities is higher than the national average. One had a homicide rate of 312 per 100,000 inhabitants, and 12 reported murder rates of 100 per 100,000 inhabitants. Some 85% reported efforts to eradicate illicit crops. Just 53 accounted for 23,563 hectares of coca (27% of the national total, in a country with 1,098 municipalities). These figures highlight the risks that many returning families may face.

 In terms of security, the authorities emphasise the importance of integrated action by the security forces and entities responsible for providing social services within the framework of presidential order 001 of 2009, the government’s strategy of territorial consolidation, without warning of the risks facing communities and institutions carrying out humanitarian work. The confusion regarding humanitarian action is evident in that the policy links humanitarian accompaniment to programmes for dismantling illegal armed groups and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.

 Insecurity partly explains people’s general reluctance to return. Between 3% and 5% of internally displaced people express a desire to return. Also important is the nature of displacement and resettlement. More than 2 million IDPs are dispersed in Colombia’s large cities, 80% of whom arrived there as individuals or families. This scattered pattern makes returns difficult to organise; successful return processes are generally collective in nature. Other problems concern coordination among the 21 national entities involved, and between them and the municipalities, and land and housing issues in areas of return.

 The weakness of the municipalities where many displacements take place and the long distances involved also pose problems. Follow-up by UNHCR has found that some returnees have received inadequate attention, that the protocol on returns is unknown by local authorities and IDPs and its application limited and that accompaniment is lacking, limiting sustainability. Returns are especially fragile where communities have been pressed into returning by armed groups, have faced difficulties in host communities, including a lack of attention from the state, and have suffered a lack of accompaniment following return.

Ensuring sustainable return

Even in the complex circumstances of Colombia’s armed conflict, with diverse armed groups fighting for control over territories with strategic military, political or economic importance, return remains possible. For many it may even be the best alternative, particularly for indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, where returns have been most successful. The instruments designed by the Colombian state are adequate to achieve successful returns, which is why greater efforts must be made to guarantee their application. Efforts are needed to strengthen the capacity for follow-up throughout all phases of return.

 In terms of security, reports by military forces should be supplemented by comprehensive analysis of the conditions in these territories. There are zones where it is possible to promote returns. For example, in 27 of the 115 municipalities analysed (23%), homicide rates are below the national average, illegal armed groups are less active than in other regions, accidents involving mines are rare, illicit crop cultivation is less of a problem than in other zones and there have been very few new displacements between 2006 and 2008. In other words, there are objective conditions that point to successful returns in these areas.

Nonetheless, in all cases, the establishment of mechanisms for monitoring, early warning and prompt reaction are necessary to mitigate any future risk. To limit the stigmatisation of these communities, their involvement in activities that could lead to reprisals by illegal armed groups, such as networks of informants or visible leadership in crop substitution programmes, should be avoided. Community participation in identifying needs and alternatives should be supplemented with instruments to facilitate financing of the initiatives identified; inflexible resources from the national government and the international community hamper community efforts and reduce the impact of investments.

 A complete inventory of returns should be carried out to identify gaps in protection and highlight community needs. Accompaniment by humanitarian agencies can help to limit the pressure on communities in areas where illegal armed actors are a significant presence, and where there are considerable restrictions on movement. It is possible that, in certain cases, specific investments by the state or by international actors would help consolidate some of these processes. The proposal to prioritise the state response in 25 cases of return constitutes a positive first step in making return a genuine alternative and a lasting solution.


Andrés Celis is Coordinator of the Protection Unit at UNHCR in Colombia. His email address is celis@unhcr.org. The comments expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of UNHCR Colombia.