Colombia: Refugees in their own country

The more than five million Colombians forced from their homes are finding it difficult to return to their lands.

The wife of a soldier, Yomaria Socarias fled her home after threats from FARC fighters [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Bogota, Colombia Like 5.7 million other Colombians, Alirio Alfonso Guerrero is a refugee in his own country.

Decades of political conflict between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs have given Colombia the dubious distinction of having the second-highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) on earth, after Syria.

While the country’s political class gears up for a presidential election on May 25, many IDPs are focused on trying to rebuild their shattered lives.

“I’d love to go back to farming, it’s what I was born and raised to do,” Guerrero told Al Jazeera. “But I can’t do that now… people from the countryside suffer the most.”

With the help of a non-governmental organisation in Bogota, the 63-year-old former rancher is learning computer skills to get a job in the city. “I don’t always understand the technology,” he admitted with a shy smile. “I never imagined I’d be studying computers.”

Alirio Alfonso Guerrero was displaced from his farm by right-wing paramilitary forces in 2005 [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Paramilitary groups, linked to major landowners and elite businessmen, forced Guerrero from his farm in the Cesar region in 2005. “They labelled all the farmers as guerrillas, and said we were selling food to the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia],” he explained.

While staying at his mother’s homestead, a four-hour drive from his ranch and avocado operation, paramilitary forces overran Guerrero’s property. “They killed one of my brothers and hundreds of others.” He left the land and 200 animals and never returned.

He ran a fruit stall in the small coastal city of Barranquilla before extortion attempts by local thugs forced him to leave for the capital. Living in Altos de la Florida, an unregistered community on the outskirts of Bogota for the past four years, he is too old to be starting from scratch – but doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

Yomaria Socarias faces a similar dilemma. She was living in Choco on the country’s Pacific coast with her husband, a soldier, when 70 guerrillas arrived in their town searching for members of the military. “We just grabbed what we could carry,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is still very violent there, so we wouldn’t want to go back now. We are just trying to survive and make new lives here in Bogota.”

Socarias and Guerrero represent faces of the largest internal exodus in the Western hemisphere. More than 10 percent of Colombia’s population is internally displaced.

Forever on the books

Despite the human and economic cost of a significant portion of the population being cut off from their traditional livelihoods, Colombia’s GDP is set to grow by around five percent this year, potentially overtaking Argentina as Latin America’s third-biggest economy.

Conditions faced by Colombia’s IDPs are, in many cases, better than the experiences of displaced people in places like Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Sibylla Brodzinsky, co-editor of the book Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence.

“One particular thing about Colombia – once you are registered as displaced, you don’t come off the list. Some of the [5.7 million people] might have been displaced just for a week,” Brodzinsky told Al Jazeera. “The refugee camps you find in other parts of the world never really existed here.”

Many displaced people simply moved in with relatives, or constructed shanties in informal settlements like Altos de la Florida on the periphery of major cities.

“About 30 percent of our 1,600 community members are displaced people,” said Alvaro Ortiz Rojas, a community leader in Altos de la Florida. “The municipality doesn’t recognise us as an actual neighbourhood so we have no services – no water, electricity, gas or sewers.”

‘We just need help’

Rojas and other low-income residents are pressuring the government to bring clean water and a sewer system to the area ahead of the election. But given that people often depend on each other and NGOs more than the state, Rojas doesn’t have much faith in politics.

“None of the presidential candidates are any good for communities like ours,” he told Al Jazeera. “We just need help.”

That’s what the Corporation Dios Es Amor (God is Love Company) – where Socarias, Guerrero and hundreds of others are learning new skills – is trying to provide.

Displaced Colombians are learning job skills with the help of NGOs to try and reintegrate [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

“We teach people skills like computer maintenance, bread making, office administration, sewing, jewellery making, and English,” said German Sanchez, the centre’s marketing director.

The Christian NGO, which reintegrates victims of violence, receives funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), along with other foundations and some private companies.

In the centre, dozens of students stitch patterns as sewing machines hum on the third floor of a nondescript office tower. Many are single mothers who hope to be able to work from home after learning the trade, because they can’t afford childcare.

Socarias, for example, wants to start her own business stitching uniforms once she finishes the programme, but she knows it won’t be easy.

“There is a lot of stigma; [many] companies are reluctant to hire victims of conflict. They worry displaced people aren’t stable and might not have good presentation,” Alexandra Zavedra, a career counsellor, told Al Jazeera. “The problem [of displacement] keeps growing. As soon as things look like they are getting better, we see more people coming in. It needs to be eradicated from the base. Social inequality is the main problem.”

Initially framed as a conflict over ideology, much of Colombia’s internal strife has morphed into battle for territory, resources and profits rather than a struggle for communist or conservative principles.

Areas with rich agricultural land and communities near major resource developments like mines, pipelines or palm oil plantations are particularly vulnerable.

“A lot of the land in the north [where Socarias and Guerrero were forced from] is controlled by demobilised paramilitaries,” said Brodzinsky, the writer. “A lot of it is now controlled by third parties or front companies,” making it hard to trace and determining a fair amount of restitution difficult, she said.


A restitution law – officially called the Victims and Land Restitution Law – signed in 2011, was supposed to return land to some 200,000 displaced families, but Human Rights Watch and other groups have criticised the slow pace of progress.

Getting people back to their land is no easy feat for the government, which says it is making restitution a priority.

“Colombia is the only country in the world to implement this restitution process when the conflict is ongoing,” said Jesus Ricardo Urrego, the national director of the government’s land restitution agency.

Jesus Ricardo Urrego, national director of the government’s land restitution agency, has the daunting task of settling rural land disputes following years of violence [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

But the process is complicated. Some families unknowingly bought land stolen from other farmers, creating a host of new challenges, while proving legal title can be difficult in some rural areas where state authority is weak.

“The people losing land say the process is going too fast; the people who want those lands back say it’s too slow. The restitution unit has to listen to both sides,” Urrego told Al Jazeera. About 30 percent of claims for land restitution are turned down by judges as they don’t meet the requirements, he said.

“The government can’t create more displacement by kicking new residents off the land with nowhere to go… Land has always been the main reason for conflict in this country. We need justice without the desire for more vengeance.”

While displaced families wait on the legal backlog in the hopes of getting their land back, many receive aid from the government, although some say it isn’t enough.

“We get some money every year,” Socarias said. “But it’s not enough to feed four kids… some of the displaced who come to Bogota end up sleeping on the streets. The government needs stronger social action.”

The process, initiated by incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, will continue regardless of who wins the upcoming election, Urrego said.

Santos’ closest rival, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, wants to end peace talks with the FARC, a move with serious implications for the resettlement process, as a return to open hostilities could cause more people to be displaced.

Taking a break from his computer programming class, Guerrero said he supports the restitution process in principle. But without tangible security improvements and stronger measures to address the economic roots of the conflict, he doesn’t think he will be able to go home.

“Under the victim’s law, we are supposed to be given our lands back, or get new lands,” he said. “But then what’s to stop another armed group from coming and displacing us again?”

Source: Al Jazeera