Colombia has faced one of the world’s most acute internal displacement situations associated with conflict and violence over five decades. The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest armed group, signed a peace agreement in 2016 which put an end to a conflict that had lasted for more than 50 years. This was a highly significant development and a prerequisite for achieving durable solutions for the country’s IDPs. Obstacles remain, however, including compensation, land and property restitution, and implementation of points agreed in the peace deal. Sudden-onset disasters and large-scale land acquisitions for development projects have also triggered displacement.
Other illegal armed groups remain active despite the peace agreement, and their activities triggered about 139,000 new displacements in 2019. The Pacific coast departments of Nariño and Chocó were the most affected as 40 events of mass displacement affected more than 23,000 people. The northern department of Norte de Santander was also severely affected at the same as trying to deal with the mass influx of Venezuelans crossing the border. Disasters, mainly floods, triggered 35,000 new displacements in 2019. Around 5.6 million people were living in displacement as of the end of the year.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Discontent in rural areas arising from economic inequality, political exclusion, corruption, poor governance, the uneven distribution of land and resources and territorial marginalisation led to the outbreak of armed conflict in Colombia in the mid-1960s. The country’s five-decade war involved government security forces, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and criminal groups. It began mostly in rural areas, but over time spread throughout the country. Non-state armed groups, the largest of which was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), were particularly active in areas where state presence was weak or absent.
Land issues were at the heart of the conflict and remain a key factor in ensuring a sustainable peace. Counterinsurgency operations, fumigation campaigns to eradicate coca plantations, and a failure to provide meaningful economic alternatives, particularly to poor farmers growing coca, fuelled further conflict and displacement. It is estimated that more than 4.5 million hectares of land were seized or abandoned during the conflict.
The government and the FARC signed a historic peace agreement in 2016, but the country’s military has struggled to secure areas the demobilised guerrilla group used to control. Other armed groups vying for control of land, illegal mining, drug plantations and trafficking routes have filled the new vacuum, leading to renewed instability.
Fighting between three armed groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Gaitanista Self-Defence Groups (AGC) and FARC dissidents, triggered most of the 139,000 conflict displacement recorded in 2019. The figure is a small decrease from the 145,000 recorded in 2018, but a sign that insecurity remains high. The 2016 peace deal lays out a plan for comprehensive rural reform, including details on land restitution and farmers’ land rights, but the extent to which its provisions will be successfully implemented remains to be seen.
Colombia also faces a high risk of disaster displacement. The Andean mountain range, which includes active volcanos, covers about a third of the country, and seismic risk is high. Cities, including the capital Bogotá, are at high risk of earthquakes, floods and landslides, and poor communities on the Pacific coast are exposed to floods and tsunamis. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation, dense informal settlements in hazard-prone areas and a significant amount of construction in violation of safety regulations have played a role in increasing disaster risk in some towns and cities. Flooding and landslides are common, especially during the rainy seasons.
Sudden-onset events, mainly floods, landslides and earthquakes, displace tens of thousands of people every year. There have also been some outlier events, such as the El Niño phenomenon in 2010, which led to unprecedented flooding and landslides throughout the country and the displacement of three million people. About 35,000 new disaster displacements were recorded in 2019.
More than 11,000 people were evacuated as a result of floods in Puerto Guzmán in Putumayo department in August. The San José de Apartado river burst its banks in the department of Antioquia in October, triggering 8,000 new displacements. Magdalena and Nariño departments were also affected by floods between September and December. Heavy rain in Chocó in late February caused six rivers to burst their banks, affecting nearly 31,000 people. It was not possible to ascertain how many were displaced.
All of Colombia’s municipalities have had IDPs flee to or from their jurisdictions. Some IDPs have been confined or endure restricted mobility as a result of hostilities, landmines and other threats. Others who previously fled conflict have been displaced again by disasters.
In some cases, displacement and confinement happened in 2019 despite the Ombudsman’s Office issuing alerts about imminent attacks, which reveals significant shortfalls in terms of pre-emptive action in response to such early warnings. It also illustrates the scale of the challenge Colombia continues to face in building stability and peace. The government is absent from many areas of the country, which armed groups have taken advantage of to expand their territorial control. The assassination of social leaders and human rights defenders also continues unabated. There were 253 such killings in 2019, bringing the total since the peace deal was signed to 817.
Internal displacement in Colombia is highly urban. More than 386,000 IDPs were thought to be living in Bogotá, a figure that represents around five per cent of the city’s population. Criminal and gang violence in Colombia’s second city of Medellín is thought to trigger between 5,000 and 15,000 displacements a year. Much of this displacement is intra-urban, as people move from one neighbourhood to another in search of safety. Colombia’s main cities have also been important destinations for IDPs coming from rural areas in search of safety, job opportunities and services.
IDPs continue to face protection concerns, including those associated with armed conflict and widespread violence, lack of access to agricultural and other livelihoods, and lack of formal employment and income-generating opportunities. Progress on land restitution has been slow. African-Colombian and indigenous people are at particularly high risk of displacement because their land is often in resource-rich areas targeted by armed groups.
According to the National Victims Registry (RUV), about 1,6 million people displaced after 1985 had overcome vulnerabilities linked to their displacement in the seven areas it monitors - housing, family reunification, identification, nutrition, health, education and income - as of the end of 2019. Another 542,000 had overcome just their housing vulnerabilities. This is encouraging, but it is clear that many challenges to the achievement of durable solutions remain.
This increase over the last decade of the number of people that have overcome their vulnerabilities associated to displacement reflects the government’s support to people displaced by the conflict. Colombia´s RUV is the most comprehensive registry on internal displacement data globally also compiling information on the current situation of victims of displacement. This allows the RUV to assess whether IDPs have overcome all vulnerabilities associated to displacement, although detailed information is not always available.
Victims of Colombia’s armed conflict are logged in the National Victims Registry (RUV), which is the most comprehensive dataset available on the country’s IDPs. It is the basis for our estimates of stock figures, but given that it includes all people displaced since the start of the conflict, it overestimates the number currently living in displacement. In an effort to account for this, we worked with RUV to establish a revised estimate for 2019 that excludes people who have died and those who have overcome vulnerability related to housing in their pursuit of durable solutions.
As the RUV does not collect data on new displacements, we base these estimates on projections calculated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
For disaster displacement, we use media reports that usually quote local government figures. There is a gap in information on the movement patterns of people displaced by disasters following their initial flight. Local governments gather data on them, but Colombia’s national disaster management agency only requests and publishes information about the number of people affected and houses damaged and destroyed.