Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees | Analysis

COLOMBIA: A Country in Flight

BOGOTÁ, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - While the street sweepers clean up huge piles of rubbish in the Tercer Milenio park in the centre of the Colombian capital, young police officers have been posted there to prevent any more people displaced from their rural homes by the armed conflict from trying to camp there.

For four months, more than 5,000 people took refuge in makeshift tents and shelters in the park – an area of 16.5 square kilometres that had been recuperated by the Bogotá city government and transformed into a beautiful public park.

The sea of improvised shelters turned it into a sea of poverty and unmet needs, just a few blocks from the presidential palace and city hall.

The newspaper headlines about the removal of the displaced families referred to it as an eviction or “recovery” of the park, while emphasising the agreement reached with the leaders of the protest camp.

But the seemingly endless procession of people carrying mattresses, pots and pans and other utensils, bundles of clothing, wooden stools, old TV sets and the odd piece of furniture caught on film by the TV cameras looked no different from the all-too-familiar scenes of families displaced from their homes, except that this time it happened in the very heart of the Colombian capital.

When displaced families occupied the San Francisco church, also in central Bogotá, four months ago, they eventually left as the result of an agreement reached with the authorities. The same thing happened when they abandoned their camp in the Plaza de Bolívar. And there were talks and promises again on May 26, when 850 displaced persons exchanged their tents in the Tercer Milenio park for spots in temporary shelters and the offer of 400 jobs.

On Aug. 3, the rest of the families left the park with a bit of cash from the government and a commitment that it would invest nearly three million dollars in productive projects.

The occupations of the church, the public square and the park were held to demand government assistance for their plight.

But their prior experiences indicate that a real, in-depth solution to their problem is still a distant prospect. Their departure from the park demonstrates, to those willing to see it, the impotence of the government’s social policies and the limitations of its flagship “democratic security” policy.

Weak social policies

The phenomenon of forced migration in Colombia has existed since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. Local historian Hermes Tovar describes the Colombian population as in a state of constant flight, forced off their land by warring factions or by the state security forces.

Another historian and sociologist, Darío Fajardo, identifies three waves of forced displacement over the last 110 years. At the start of the 20th century, the Thousand Days War (1899-1903) between the opposition Liberal Party and the government in the hands of the Conservative Party turned Colombia into a country of people fleeing their homes – the first wave.

In the second wave, between 1946 and 1966, two million people – one-fifth of the population – were forced to abandon their homes due to renewed fighting between supporters of the two parties. During that time, Bogotá became a city of migrants: 71 percent of the male population had come from outside of the city, according to the 1964 census.

The third, which began in the 1990s, has been caused – like the previous waves – by criminal gangs, warring factions, and government forces.

According to the Bogotá Health Secretary, between 30,000 and 50,000 displaced persons flood into the city every 24 hours – people forced to flee their home provinces by the far-right paramilitary militias, the left-wing guerrillas, the army, drug gangs and other forms of organised crime.

This has given rise to a new class of more than four million people in this country of 40 million – rural workers and small and even medium-sized farmers stripped of their rights, as French researcher Daniel Pécaut has pointed out, saying the problem in Colombia today is that those displaced by the war have nowhere to go.

The Constitutional Court upheld that view when it received more than 1,150 complaints and requests for writs of protection from displaced families.

The judges were fully aware that the legal complaints represented just the tip of the iceberg. No one knows exactly how many people have fled, leaving behind their land and belongings under the threat of violence. Nor is it clear who has lost exactly what. The lack of coordination between government officials, agencies and institutions had made the legal action brought by the 1,150 families ineffective, and it was clear that the problem had gotten completely out of the government’s hands.

That outlook formed the backdrop to a landmark 2004 Constitutional Court ruling and 50 other legal decisions that have followed it in the last five years, all of them aimed at enforcing the rights of internally displaced persons.

Democratic security

The families forced to leave the Tercer Milenio park on Aug. 3 were probably not familiar with that history.

“Public policies on the displaced have been implemented not out of political will, but due to judicial orders, because the government is generous towards investors, banks and companies, but too weak to provide reparations to the victims,” said Jorge Rojas, head of the non-governmental Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), the entity that has most closely followed the phenomenon of forced displacement.

Some of the families who had taken refuge in the Tercer Milenio park made use of the agreement with the authorities to get free bus tickets back to their home villages or towns, carrying the cash from the government in their pockets.

Families with one or two members received just over 250 dollars, and those of five or six members were given around 800 dollars.

But the stories of those who have returned home have usually borne very little resemblance to their hopes or dreams.

According to statistics presented at an international seminar on forced displacement in March, only 16 percent have dared to return home, and they did not find suitable conditions.

An investigative report by columnist Claudia López clearly showed that the displaced have good reason to be afraid to return home: the armed groups who took over their property continue to control their land, and government protection is so inadequate that the few who do return merely relive the nightmare and are expelled again, or seek refuge elsewhere, in a few cases in shelters offered by the government in scant restitution for what the war has taken from them.

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