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No Place to Call Home: Internally Displaced Persons and the Armed Conflict in Colombia

by The Washington Office of Public Policy


Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681

     “I haven’t smiled since the day a group of men came to the house asking for my husband.  They took him outside to talk, then they shot him twice.  After that I went to live with my parents in the village…After they shot him, and because of the armed groups everywhere, many people left the area…[I]t’s always us civilians who bear the brunt.” - 20-year-old displaced Colombian widow1

For the past 40 years, Colombia has been in the grip of an armed conflict between guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian army.  Opposing sides are fighting for control of land, natural resources, the drug trade, and political power, and the civilian population is trapped in the middle.  The armed conflict has forced civilians to leave their communities in order to survive.  They move from place to place in search of food, safety, and shelter and are known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).  Colombia’s internally displaced persons are the population most affected by the country’s humanitarian crisis.  Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are people who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflict, general violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.2  The difference between IDPs and refugees is that refugees have left their home country and crossed a border into another country.  While IDPs and refugees often leave their homes for the same reasons, IDPs are a more vulnerable group because they are not protected by any international human rights treaties, and they do not have the same access to humanitarian aid that refugees do. 

There are currently almost 20 million internally displaced persons all over the world,3 from Colombia to the Sudan to the Philippines. 

The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a Colombian human rights organization, estimates that almost 3 million Colombians have been internally displaced between 1985 and 2003.4  The most vulnerable elements of Colombian society form the ranks of the internally displaced:  women, children, the poor, rural people, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians.  Women and girls make up more than 55% of IDPs in Colombia,5 and over 1/3 of internally displaced families are headed by women.6  Displaced women experience a greater risk of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and domestic violence.  Sixty percent of displaced women have no source of income, no access to employment,7 and no access to health services.8

Colombia has the second highest number of internally displaced persons in the world, second only to the Sudan.9  They have been displaced by the civil war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the Colombian Army.  People have been shot by guerrillas for giving paramilitaries food and water.  Human rights activists have been tortured and killed.  Women are raped as “punishment” for their work as community organizers.  As the armed conflict moves into a region or village, the people living in that community are forced to relocate in order to escape the violence. 

Children and adolescents make up half of the population of the internally displaced in Colombia.10  Displaced children face a host of hardships and dangers, including increased poverty, lack of access to education and health care, recruitment as child soldiers, and child labor.  Up to 85% of children are unable to continue going to school after their families become displaced.11  A survey in the city of Soacha conducted by Doctors Without Borders found that 30% of displaced children in Soacha suffered chronic malnutrition and 2% were severely malnourished.12  Displaced Colombian children witness brutal violence and are the victims of violence.  A mother in the region of Putomayo reported that her 17-year-old daughter was shot to death by guerrillas because they thought she was reporting their activities.  In actuality, she was only selling cosmetics.13

The Afro-Colombian community is especially hard hit by the problem of internal displacement.  Afro-Colombians are the descendents of Africans that were brought to Colombia during the slave trade to work in the mines, sugar plantations, cattle ranches, and textile mills.  The legacy of slavery remains, leaving 80% of Afro-Colombians living in conditions of extreme poverty today.  While they make up roughly 20-25% of the Colombian population,14 Afro-Colombians comprise 33% of the population of the internally displaced.15  When they leave their communities, displaced Afro-Colombians experience racist discrimination, which makes it harder for them to find jobs and places to live.  One organizer with the Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), an advocacy organization based in Colombia, was displaced when paramilitaries came to her village and began assassinating people who were suspected of collaborating with the guerillas.16  Like other displaced people, displaced Afro-Colombians move from rural areas to urban areas, where research has shown that it is harder for them to preserve their cultural identity and traditions.17  In 1996, Afro-Colombian communities received titles from the Colombian government, which granted them collective ownership of their historical lands.  These lands are one of the most biologically diverse zones in the world and are rich in natural resources like minerals and petroleum.  Colombian human rights organizations have accused paramilitary groups of collaborating with foreign corporations to displace Afro-Colombians from these resource-rich areas. 

The Colombian government has failed to effectively address the plight of the internally displaced.  While a system for processing IDPs exists on paper, this system is confusing, impractical, and difficult for IDPs to access.  In 1997, the Colombian legislature passed Law 387 which “established measures ‘for the prevention of forced displacement; [and] the attention, protection, consolidation and socieoeconomic stabilization of the internally displaced by violence in the Republic of Colombia.’”18  The law provides emergency aid for internally displaced persons for three months, with an additional three months of aid under unusual circumstances.  The law also stated a government guarantee of IDPs’ safety and a commitment to helping the displaced return to their home communities.  While Law 387 offers three months of emergency aid, the reality is that people are often displaced for years.  In order to qualify for aid, IDPs must register with the government, which many are reluctant to do for fear that their attackers to find them.  Since IDPs often leave their homes in a hurry with very few possessions, they lack the proper identification documents needed to register with the government. 

The humanitarian crisis of internal displacement in Colombia is a pervasive problem that is unraveling the country’s social fabric. Internal displacement interferes with education, the environment, food security, and health care.  The problem of internal displacement will not end until the armed conflict in Colombia is resolved.  Currently, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid – like military training, equipment and weapons19 - which has gone to a national army with a history of human rights abuses and with proven links to brutal paramilitary groups.  As part of Plan Colombia, the U.S. agreed to provide a $1.3 billion package of aid in 2000 and 2001.  Most of the aid was for military, police, and anti-narcotics programs.  Only $30 million of the funding was for aid to internally displaced people.20  Various agencies of the United Nations are providing humanitarian aid in Colombia, including the World Food Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the UN Fund for Children (UNICEF).  The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the most active international organizations working on behalf of the displaced in Colombia.  Other include Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and Save the Children.  Increased U.S. aid for Colombian peace-building efforts would enable women-focused non-governmental organizations to expand programs for women and children.


  • Read Resolution #280: United States Role in Colombia in the Book of Resolutions (BOR 2000, p. 690-691.)
  • Read more about the conflict in Colombia!  At the web page for Church World Service, you can find in-depth materials on the history of the civil war in Colombia.  Go to http://www.churchworldservice.org/Educ_Advo/colombia.html or  contact Church World service at :  Church World Service, Education and Advocacy, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115, (212) 870-2061
  • Pass a resolution in your church or community on Colombia!  City councils, student associations, state legislatures, churches and others can pass resolutions on Colombia. It's a great way to inform your community about peace and human rights in Colombia, and to send a powerful message to policymakers about your concerns. For  information on how to pass a resolution on Colombia, contact the U.S. Office on Colombia at::  U.S. Office on Colombia, 1630 Connecticut Avenue, NW Suite 201, Washington, DC  20009, (202) 232-8090; or go to their website at http://www.usofficeoncolombia.org/resolutions.htm .

Read this and other Action Alerts online at the Women’s Division’s website – http://gbgm-umc.org/umw

1International Committee of the Red Cross, “Colombia: Displaced people tell their stories, January 4, 2004,http://www.icrc.org/Web/Eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/colombia_stories010404 .

2 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” http://ochaonline.un.org/DocView.asp?DocID=575.

3 U.S. Committee for Refugees, “Who Are Internally Displaced Persons?”, 2004, http://www.refugees.org/world/idps.htm.

4 International Crisis Group, “Colombia’s Humanitarian Crisis,” July 9, 2003, http://www.icg.org//library/documents/report_archive/A401043_09072003.pdf.

5 Women for Women International, “Women in Colombia,” 2004, http://www.womenforwomen.org/nrcolw.html.

6 U.S. Office on Colombia, “The Impact of War on Women: Current Realities, Government Responses and Recommendations for the Future, February 2004, http://www.usofficeoncolombia.org/documents/womenbrief.htm.

7 United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), “Gender Profile of the Conflict in Colombia,” 2004, http://www.womenwarpeace.org/colombia/colombia.htm.

8 MADRE, “Colombia Country Profile, http://www.madre.org/print-/countries/Colombia.html.

9 Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, “Colombia’s War On Children,” February 2004, http://www.watchlist.org/reports/colombia.report.pdf.

10 Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, “Unseen Millions: The Catastrophe of Internal Displacement in Colombia,” March 2002, http://www.womenscommission.org/pdf/co2.pdf.

11 Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.

12 Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

13 Ibid.

14 U.S. Office on Colombia, “Afro-Colombians Under Fire,” June 2004, http://usofficeoncolombia.org/insidecolombia/afcol.htm.

15 U.S. Office on Colombia, “The Impact of War on Afro-Colombians: A Community Under Siege,” July 2004, http://usofficeoncolombia.org/documents/afrocolombiandoc.pdf.

16 Sanchez-Garzoli, “Interview with Afro-Colombian IDP Leaders,” Refugee Watch, No. 20, December 2003, http://www.brookings/edu/printme.wbs?page=/fp/projects/idp/articles/20031230sanchez.htm .


18 Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, “A Charade of Concern: The Abandonment of Colombia’s Forcibly Displaced,” May 1999, http://www.womenscommission.org/pdf/co1.pdf.

19 Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. 

20 Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, “Unseen Millions.”

Note: Click here to download this Action Alert bulletin in PDF form.


Date posted: Nov 29, 2004