For almost 5 years, I have been following the challenges facing millions of forcibly displaced Colombians. They have been forced to abandon their homes because of violence, conflict between illegal armed groups and national army counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations.
During this time, I have visited several locations in the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and areas bordering Ecuador and Venezuela. I heard the stories of those who had recently fled their homes. Some were trying to survive in sub-human conditions in poor urban neighborhoods while others shared with me their plan to return to their lands after years of exile.
There have been some positive changes. First of all, the work of the Constitutional Court of Colombia has been extremely valuable. Since early 2004 the Court has made forced displacement a priority, thanks in part to the thousands of petitions filed by displaced people who complained about the lack of protection and assistance provided by the Colombian government. It has issued a series of orders that have progressively pushed the government to increase the resources allocated to displaced people. Some progress has been seen in the expansion of access to basic medical assistance for displaced households and increased primary school attendance of the children of displaced families.
In addition, the Court has allowed civil society groups and representatives from organizations of displaced people to provide input into its work, and it has set up a system that allows civil society to monitor the performance of the governmental response. Finally, leaders of displaced communities have gradually organized themselves and started to advocate more forcefully for their rights with local authorities and service providers.
And yet, these positive trends fall much too short of what’s needed right now and do not provide a rosy perspective for the future. During my most recent trip in October, I looked at how forced displacement affects the women and children of Colombia, as eighty percent of the estimated 4 million internally displaced are women and children. The majority of the women I spoke with stressed that the government continues to reject the idea that displaced individuals and families are more vulnerable than poor people. For instance, governmental initiatives that enable people to earn steady incomes have not been successful with displaced communities. These programs fail to take into account that most displaced people cannot access credit and struggle to feed themselves before attending vocational training courses. These initiatives also ignore the sustained psychological support these families need to cope with violent trauma and the shock of forced displacement.
The situation becomes even more complicated for women, particularly those who have to assume full responsibility for their families after having lost their husband or partner. They are highly vulnerable and are frequently exposed to abuse and violence. Similarly, there have been significant government failures in areas such access to dignified housing or recovery of abandoned land and property.
Confronted with this reality, the displaced Colombians I’ve met over the last five years do not fantasize about great changes for their lives. However, they have become much more aware of their rights and they are determined to give their children better opportunities. Any assistance provided to support these efforts is the right way to help.