Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Colombia: The Western Hemisphere’s greatest displacement crisis

Source: Refugees International (RI) - One in ten Colombians has been uprooted by ongoing violence; families have been broken and loved ones assassinated. After being displaced, young boys and girls are forced to drop out of school in order to support their families and are at constant risk of being forcibly recruited by armed groups and narcotics gangs. A nationwide campaign to highlight these powerful human stories culminated with a grassroots effort to generate letters to Congressional representatives. I hope you will join us in this effort.

As part of this national awareness campaign, portraits of Colombia's displaced civilians have been displayed publicly in cities and at church services nationwide. These images give a human dimension to a tragedy that is too often framed in political terms. Much of the analysis of the conflict focuses on the war on drugs and counterinsurgency operations against rebel groups, relegating people in need of humanitarian assistance to the category of collateral damage

Throughout the years, many brave and dedicated leaders of displaced communities taught me how difficult the situation is for Colombia's displaced families. From my time spent with them, I came to know the daily hardship of Colombians like Julia, a woman who used to live a dignified life on her farm, taking care of her children while her husband worked in the fields. Now she is a widow seeking temporary domestic work in the city, often obliged to leave her young children unattended. I also met elderly Colombians, including a displaced couple who could not afford sufficient medical treatment. From these families, some individuals manage to take initiative, organize the communities, develop self-help initiative, and approach the government to request help and protection of their rights.

Providing technical assistance and resources directly to the leadership of displaced groups, and to the local and international agencies working with them, is crucial. Through this support, leadership and organizational structures are strengthened; groups become more capable of implementing assistance programs for their communities and can access existing legal mechanisms to redress rights violations.

Another important step that the U.S. can take is to support the Colombian government in adopting and funding the necessary programs to fulfill the recommendations by the Colombian Constitutional Court. Over the years the Court has been pushing the government to design and implement policies to assist displaced Colombians and to protect their rights. These include demanding specific programs for particularly vulnerable groups like Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities, women, the elderly and people with disabilities. The wealth of information gathered and orders issued by the Court now needs to translate into dignified homes, job training and opportunities, access to credit schemes and modalities for land restitution and compensation, some of the most unattended needs expressed by displaced people.

Finally, the U.S. should step up its role in helping those Colombians who fled into bordering countries. Conflict and violence is having an increasingly serious impact beyond Colombia and the existing capacity to respond to the needs of refugees is insufficient. Greater presence of humanitarian groups and the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) is essential in order to deliver immediate and lifesaving help for the refugees. At the same time, there is need for a holistic approach and that requires strengthening the capacity of the host governments at both the central and local level. This can be done through expanded registration campaigns to grant refugees personal documentation essential for their freedom of movement and legal access to work. One successful example in Ecuador includes the recent completion of a year-long enhanced registration process, delivering 28,000 documents to Colombian refugees – 150% more then the previous eight years combined. Additionally, recipient communities and local administrations need help in absorbing refugees and enlarging their capacity to provide basic services such as housing, health care and education.

Refugees International joined this effort because too little is known about this humanitarian crisis that rages in our hemisphere. It is time to question the current policies that contribute to its continuation. The most important change is in the way policy makers think about the conflict and the factors that keep from them negotiating an end to the conflict in Colombia. We have a long way to go, but it's also important to remember how far we've come.

See also Sydney Irresistible and Mike Hitchen Unleashed
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