31 December 2013 |

Internal Displacement in the Americas

Figures and causes

There were as many as six million IDPs in the Americas as of the end of 2013, forced to flee their homes by war, violence and human rights violations. The vast majority were in Colombia, where the government put their number at nearly 5.5 million. It should be noted, however, that the figure is cumulative, and so does not take into account those who have died while displaced or those who have achieved a durable solution. New displacement also took place in Mexico and Honduras during the year.

Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict is still the main cause of displacement, but increasing criminal violence has also forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes throughout the region. Organised crime cartels and gangs have displaced around 160,000 Mexicans and 17,000 Hondurans in recent years. According to government figures, Peru may still have as many as 230,000 IDPs, all of whom were displaced by internal armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Colombia, fighting between non-state armed groups and the security forces, and direct threats to individuals and communities are responsible for most displacements. Widespread abuses, including the recruitment of minors, sexual violence, the use of anti-personnel mines, extortion and the targeting of human rights workers have also forced people from their homes. Combat between government forces and guerrilla groups causes the majority of displacements, but re-emerged paramilitaries and organised crime syndicates also commit significant abuses and violence against civilians.

In Mexico, criminal organisations fighting both each other and the security forces have caught countless innocent civilians in the crossfire. Threats and violence associated with extortion rackets have also increased dramatically. Crime syndicates now dispute territory beyond that associated with trafficking routes to enable them to demand illegal payments in areas they control. They also seek to control poppy cultivation and access to resources such as gold and timber, at times displacing whole communities at gunpoint in the process. Local government officials and their families are targeted if they refuse to cooperate, as are human rights workers and ordinary citizens seeking justice for crimes they or their families have suffered. The fear of forced recruitment has also caused displacement, as have religious and political violence, particularly among indigenous groups.

Tropical storms hit many parts of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas in November, causing mudslides and flooding that forced tens of thousands of people to flee at least temporarily. Many, however, had already been victims of criminal violence and decided not to return to their homes.

In Honduras, widespread violence, extortion, threats and forced recruitment committed by urban gangs providing security for drug cartels were the main cause of displacement in 2013. Agrarian conflicts, territorial disputes over trafficking corridors and natural resources, and the political persecution of those who opposed the 2009 presidential coup were also factors.

Capturing the true scope of current internal displacement in the region is difficult. Colombia and Peru have victims’ registries for reparations purposes, but it is unclear how many of those registered have returned or resettled permanently in other parts of the country. It was also only during the second half of 2013 that the Colombian government began to register victims of paramilitary groups and organized crime. Neither Mexico nor Honduras yet have assistance or protection programmes that might encourage victims of violence to register, and IDPs are often confused with economic migrants. 

New displacements

An average of around 180,000 people a year have been newly displaced in Colombia over the past five years. The government has been in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) since 2012, but in the absence of a ceasefire civilians in rural areas continue to suffer the ravages of the conflict. The country’s paramilitary groups were in theory demobilised between 2003 and 2006, but their successors have largely continued where they left off, intimidating and threatening rural peasants, including land claimants, and competing for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitary groups and their abuses have also proliferated in Honduras, often associated with government officials, private companies and the security forces, and linked to disputes over land and illegal mining concessions in rural areas.

In Mexico, the states of Guerrero and Michoacán were the worst affected by internal displacement in 2013, as peasants and small-business owners fell prey to criminal organisations seeking to control and extort all aspects of economic and political life. Many communities have tried to protect themselves by forming armed self-defence groups initially recognised by the government. As many as 15,000 people were also displaced both before and during large-scale security operations in the two states that began at the end of 2013.

Rural to urban flight is predominant across the region, but intra-urban displacement is also on the rise in cities such as Medellín, Cali, Buenaventura, San Pedro Sula, Acapulco and Monterrey. Mass displacements of more than ten families or 50 individuals have increased in both Colombia and Mexico in recent years.

Protection issues

IDPs in urban areas tend to have less access than their impoverished neighbours to basic needs such as adequate housing, work and education, the result of having lost personal documents or being unfamiliar with the social services available. Personal safety also remains a concern, because some criminal groups have national reach and are able to trace IDPs’ whereabouts.

Fearful of identifying themselves after leaving their communities, many of the region’s IDPs seek anonymity in poor urban neighbourhoods, where they tend to have little or no access to assistance and protection. IDPs living in precarious conditions in urban settings are also generally considered to be more vulnerable to the impact of disasters. Many in Mexico and Honduras have sought asylum in neighbouring countries or the US after not finding sufficient national assistance and protection measures. Government surveys in Peru concluded that most of the country’s IDPs were in urgent need of psychological support.

Ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number of IDPs throughout the region. Colombia’s Pacific coast, from where more a third of the country’s displaced population has fled in recent years, is home to many indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

Durable solutions

Of all the countries in the region, Colombia has made the most progress in supporting IDPs’ local integration or their return to the countryside. The government also pressed on with an unprecedented land restitution process in 2013, but rulings to date represent only a small fraction of the cases submitted. Many seeking the return of their land face threats and risk being targeted by the same people who first displaced them. Agrarian strikes in August highlighted the crisis in small-scale farming and raised questions about the viability of IDPs’ return to the countryside.

In Mexico’s northern states, which once had the some of the highest homicide rates in the world, the situation in places such as Ciudad Juárez has improved. IDPs have begun to return under their own steam thanks to robust security commitments, investment in social welfare and a stabilisation of the power balance among cartels that previously fought over trafficking routes into the US. Specific efforts to assist IDPs have, however, been piecemeal and fragmented.

There were three groups of IDPs living in protracted displacement in the region as of the end of 2013. In the Peruvian city of Ayacucho, a recent study identified more than 60,000 IDPs unable to formalise ownership of their plots of land in the peripheral slums, which in turn prevents them from securing loans. They also struggle to access the public health system. Around 25,000 Mexicans were still displaced in Chiapas as a result of armed conflict in the early 1990s, and in Guatemala little is known about the fate of indigenous IDPs forced to flee their ancestral lands during scorched earth campaigns, also in the early 1990s. 

National and international response

Several important legal frameworks have been adopted in the region to assist victims of armed conflict and violence and provide financial reparations. Colombia’s current government has made significant efforts to improve emergency assistance and reparations for all victims of the armed conflict, including IDPs, through the implementation of its 2011 Victims Law. In July 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government must include tens of thousands of victims of organised crime and paramilitaries on its registry. IDPs’ access to social welfare programmes has improved as a result of the law, but only a small number have received the financial reparations it promised. The government’s response to mass displacements has also improved, but assistance to smaller groups is often severely delayed because local authorities are overburdened.

Mexico’s General Law for Victims, passed in December 2012, calls for the establishment of a national system to provide IDPs with support and reparations, including food, accommodation, security and accompanied returns in guaranteed of safety. The Executive Commission for Victims’ Assistance was appointed in late 2013 to oversee implementation, but it has not yet emphasised the components relevant to IDPs.

The country’s National Programme for Social Prevention of Violence and Delinquency includes a focus on IDPs, but no specific initiatives for them. States such as Guerrero, Sinaloa and Chiapas have adopted their own programmes for IDPs, but Chiapas has been slow to implement its law on internal displacement passed in 2012. Several senators have proposed national legislation for IDPs, including both a specific law and an amendment to the General Population Law, but it has yet to be debated.

The Honduran government created the Inter-institutional Commission for the Protection of Displaced Persons by Violence in 2013, tasked with formulating policies and adopting measures to prevent displacement and to assist and protect IDPs and their families.

In Peru, a 2004 law charged the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations with the establishment of a national registry for IDPs, but it has been slow in accepting people onto it. A high-level government commission began individual and collective reparations in 2013, but associations representing IDPs have criticised delays in a process that had reached less than a quarter of all targeted beneficiaries by the end of the year.

UNHCR has signed an agreement with the Honduran government and the Central American Integration System (SICA), made up of the seven countries of the region plus the Dominican Republic, to improve protection and assistance for people displaced by criminal violence. The agency has also offered Mexico’s Executive Commission for Victims’ Assistance technical support to establish a specialised committee on IDPs.