Colombia Faces Prospects of More Population Displacement

Already one of the world’s major centers of displaced people, Colombia faces the likelihood that the latest escalation of a multifaceted civil war will force even more people from their homes and increase the risks of illness and death.

This country of some 43 million people that borders five countries — Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama — has endured nearly four decades of violence that has uprooted at least 2 million people and caused the deaths of some 30,000 others, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR).

Forced migration often places women (especially pregnant women), children, the elderly, the disabled, and the chronically ill in situations of outright desperation. The New York-based Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children says the trauma and upheaval of war forces hundreds of thousands of Colombian women and their children from rural areas into the cities every year. In many cases, a woman will flee her village after a husband, brother, father, or son has been kidnapped or killed.

“Traumatized and terrorized, she will leave as quickly as possible — often within hours — for a hastily chosen destination. Upon arrival in that destination, she will be lucky to count on the help of a friend or relative for immediate temporary shelter,” says the Commission. “Just as likely, she will find no support whatsoever and will have to scramble to find a foothold in the barrios (slums) or at the edges of smaller towns.”

In its country reports on human rights released March 4, the U.S. State Department estimates that between 275,000 and 347,000 Colombians fled their homes in 2001 as a result of violence and instability in rural areas, with roughly one-quarter of these movements occurring in massive displacements. The report notes the difficulty in obtaining exact numbers of displaced people, however, since some are uprooted more than once, and many do not register with the government or other agencies. The World Health Organization (WHO) also reports that much of the displacement within Colombia occurs “silently,” with uprooted people simply merging unnoticed into their new situations.

Around the world, the number of internally displaced people — an estimated 20 million to 25 million — is higher than the estimated 14 million refugees who leave their countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Only two countries have more displaced nationals than Colombia (2 million): Sudan with 4 million and Angola with 2.3 million. Other countries with large displaced populations include Congo (1.8 million), Eritrea (1.1 million), and Afghanistan (956,600), according to UNHCR.

Like other refugees, internally displaced people leave their homes to avoid the effects of civil war, persecution, human rights abuses, drought, or other disasters. The USCR notes that displacement in Colombia is directly related to conflict, political violence, and human rights abuses. The conflict involves left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian armed forces.

In its report on human rights in Colombia in 2001, the U.S. State Department refers to a number of “serious problems” facing the Colombian people, including abuse of children; child prostitution; and widespread violence and extensive societal discrimination against women, indigenous people, and minorities.

Child labor is a nationwide problem as is trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation, says the report. “Social cleansing” killings of street children, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed socially undesirable by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and vigilante groups also continue to be a major issue.

Unlike international refugees, internally displaced people have no special status and no specific legally binding instrument guarantees protection or assistance. Internally displaced populations are therefore highly vulnerable. Although primary responsibility for these people rests with national governments, they may get no public or other attention because governments may have little capacity or interest in assisting them. Often, they remain invisible or inaccessible.

People’s health status and health care are of vital concern in any crisis. The arrival of large numbers of people in a community can strain the health system, and the newcomers and residents also begin competing for access to food, potable water, shelter, and environmental resources. WHO notes that HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are of paramount concern in situations of displacement and are difficult to address.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) notes that though Colombia offers access to health care for all of its citizens, regulations require that each person be properly identified. Afraid of yet again becoming a target for armed groups in the civil war, Colombia’s displaced people generally avoid health care benefits. According to PAHO’s 2001 Country Health Profile for Colombia, only 22.1 percent of displaced households receive medical care.

PAHO says that a study conducted in Colombia between 1985 and 1994 highlighted a number of issues facing displaced people. The survey found that 6.7 percent of displaced households had lost a spouse or one child through violence before they migrated, and 1,570 orphans, abandoned children, or youth had to take responsibility for the family. Of the displaced population, 69.3 percent had their own homes before they were uprooted — a percentage that dropped to 28.7 percent after they moved. Before displacement, 40.7 percent were involved in agricultural production, either earning wages or as owners of small or medium-sized plots of land, and 10.0 percent had small or medium-sized businesses. Following displacement, 22.5 percent became street vendors, 12.9 percent became laborers, and only 10.7 percent continued to be engaged in agricultural activities.

Organizations working to improve the lives of Colombia’s displaced people recommend that the needs of children and women be made an urgent priority. They urge greater support for job training and loan programs that might enable women to improve their circumstances. For displaced children, access to education and to productive activities is key to fending off the many risks they face, including those of forced labor and sexual exploitation.

Colombia Facts and Figures

Population, mid-2001 (millions) 43.1
Projected population, 2025 (millions) 59.7
Population 15-49 with HIV/AIDS, end-1999 (%) 0.3
Infant mortality rate (deaths per 1,000 live births by age 1) 21
Total fertility rate (average number of children per woman) 2.6
Married women 15-49 using modern contraception (%) 63
Population 16-20 currently attending school (%) 42
Households with a television (%) 83
Households with a telephone (%) 52
Households with a refrigerator (%) 64

Source: 2001 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau; Education and household statistics from Salud Sexual y Reproductiva en Colombia: Resultados, Encuesta Nacional de Demografía y Salud 2000.



Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), “Country Health Profile 2001: Colombia,” accessed at on March 6, 2002.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Internally Displaced Persons,” accessed at, on March 6, 2002.

U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), “Principal Sources of Internally Displaced Persons,” accessed at, on March 6, 2002.

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, “A Charade of Concern: The Abandonment of Colombia’s Forcibly Displaced,” accessed at, on March 6, 2002.

World Bank, “Street Children in Central America: An Overview,” accessed at
, on Jan. 22, 2002.

World Health Organization (WHO), “Internally Displaced Persons, Health and WHO,” paper presented at the Humanitarian Affairs Segment of ECOSOC 2000, New York, July 19-20, 2000, accessed at, on March 6, 2002.

For More Information

See “Women, War, and HIV/AIDS: Judy Benjamin, of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Examines the Connections,” at