(Bogota) September 21, 2012 — Hope clearly begins to breathe in Colombia after decades of open confrontation between armed groups. For years, victims displaced from the Colombian conflict have longed to return to the homeland they were forced to leave. With the beginning of peace talks between the left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the government that hope may finally be realized.
When we asked one Colombian refugee woman in Venezuela what the word 'homeland' meant for her, she gasped, closed her eyelids to stop the tears rolling down her face, but said nothing. Surely now, she and many others expelled from Colombia wonder if their homeland that failed to protect their human rights has really changed.
More broadly, how will the recent government decision to begin peace talks affect the 460,000 forcibly displaced Colombians living outside the country, some as recognized refugees or asylum seekers, others living in a legal limbo, but all in need of international protection?
A war fed by internal and external factors. Throughout the past 50 years, violence in Colombia has caused the greatest number of internal displacement in the western hemisphere. The violence has been fueled by a number of internal and external factors. Internally it has been driven by competing land interests, regional autocracies and the violent momentum of some factions of powerful armed groups.
Externally, the narco-trafficking business and tensions between the U.S. and emerging Latin American powers have played a crucial role in perpetuating conflict. In addition, changing patterns of international trade have meant that control of land in Colombia, particularly in the border regions, determines access to economic opportunities in both legal and illegal sectors.
More than peace, what gives encouragement at this moment is the end of the armed conflict. Peace negotiations will allow for the advancement of ample discussions inside the country over the structural factors underlying the violence and the necessity to include the diverse positions without fear of being criminalized as in the past.
As long as the war goes on, strengthening a state-of-emergency mind-set, many political decisions regarding the future of Colombia will continue to be taken without necessary consultation and respect for individual rights. The unanswered question is: what type of country was being built under the illusion of the war on terrorism?
A presidential initiative. Since the inauguration of President Juan Manuel Santos, his new administration has sought to rebuild diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, in particular Venezuela and Ecuador, strained by loudspeaker-type, aggressive stances taken by the Colombian government between 2002 and 2010.
This process began with improvements in commercial relations after Venezuela began paying off debts to Colombian exporters. Subsequent discussion moved on to border policies and military cooperation, among others. Finally, issues related to migration found their way onto the agenda at these bilateral meetings.
Initially, Ecuador dropped the entry requirement for Colombians to be in possession of a document issued by the security and immigration services, Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, indicating whether or not they had a criminal record. Later, Venezuela removed visa requirements for Colombians entering the country. All these initiatives made it easier for refugees to gain access to safety in neighboring states.
The Colombian government responded to these moves by offering a small contribution, $500,000, for refugee support in Ecuador. It was the first time the Colombian government had recognized the hardship faced by victims of armed conflict forced to seek asylum abroad and the efforts made by neighboring states assisting these populations.
The presentation of the Victims and Restitution of Lands bill to the Colombia lower parliament in late 2011 was another sign of the government moving in the direction of peace, repatriation and reconciliation. For the first time it opened debate on the framework for addressing the situation of victims living outside Colombia.
The issue of refugee reparation had been largely ignored by the government. That said, during the first six months of 2012, progress was made as the institutions responsible for the registration of and compensation to victims, such as the return of stolen land, consulted with agencies and organizations working outside of Colombia.
Safe return to Colombia. One of the major future challenges facing forcibly displaced Colombians is the possibility of their safe return home. Before this can take place, refugees should be provided with adequate information on the human rights situation in Colombia. Notwithstanding this, all decisions regarding their repatriation should be made voluntarily.
Contrary to popular belief, the conflict in Colombia has not ended and certain populations are still at risk of fundamental human rights violations. The armed groups – successors of the right-wing paramilitary groups – still maintain control over vast tracts of land, and even in the midst of peace negotiations, armed clashes persist. Moreover, the left-wing guerrilla group, the national liberation army (ELN), has not formally begun peace negotiations with the government.
Under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, states are obliged to consider 'generalized violence' as grounds for granting asylum within their territories. To put this in perspective, until Colombia is a safe country for its citizens they should continue to enjoy asylum in neighboring states. Yet their absence from Colombia should not exclude all forcibly displaced Colombians – regardless of their migration status– from being part of the debate on the future of the country, particularly on issues related to reparation and justice.
by Luis Fernando Gómez, Regional Advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service Latin America and Caribbean