For Colombia’s Displaced, a Peace Deal Doesn’t Mean a Path Home

Homecoming is still a long way off, for those who even want to return.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016.
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY GUILLERMO BARROS
A refugee claimant  Colombian woman poses with her daughter at her home in the small Ecuadorean port of San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas province, northwestern Ecuador, near to the border with Colombia, on November 08, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Eitan Abramovich        (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY GUILLERMO BARROS A refugee claimant Colombian woman poses with her daughter at her home in the small Ecuadorean port of San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas province, northwestern Ecuador, near to the border with Colombia, on November 08, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Eitan Abramovich (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY GUILLERMO BARROS A refugee claimant Colombian woman poses with her daughter at her home in the small Ecuadorean port of San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas province, northwestern Ecuador, near to the border with Colombia, on November 08, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Eitan Abramovich (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodrigo Londono "Timochenko" Echeverri, the leader of the Colombia's largest rebel group, clasped hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last week after signing a peace deal that is set to end 50 years of armed conflict that internally displaced 6.3 million Colombians while causing 400,000 more to flee the country altogether.

Rodrigo Londono “Timochenko” Echeverri, the leader of the Colombia’s largest rebel group, clasped hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last week after signing a peace deal that is set to end 50 years of armed conflict that internally displaced 6.3 million Colombians while causing 400,000 more to flee the country altogether.

When most people think refugees, they think Syria, where a grinding civil war has forced at least four million Syrians to flee their country for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and — increasingly — Europe as part of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. But Colombia has a decades-long refugee crisis of its own. After Syria, it has the highest number of internally displaced people in essence refugees who fled their homes but haven’t left their country — in the world. When you add in the hundreds of thousands who have left Colombia entirely, 13 percent of the country’s population of 49 million have sought safety in other parts of their own country and in other nations in the region. Those refugees are now facing an agonizing and potentially dangerous choice: whether or not to return home.

Nancy, a Colombian refugee who has lived in Ecuador since 2006 and spoke on condition of anonymity, remembers having to lock herself in her house when guerillas and paramilitaries confronted each other in her village in southwest Colombia. “Despite all the years I’ve lived in Ecuador, I miss my country a lot,” she told Foreign Policy.

But at 62, she has no plans to return without a guarantee that she won’t face violence or lose her house again. She said that the government’s flawed Land Restitution Law, which was meant to return property to people who lost it to guerillas and paramilitary groups, has not been enough because it doesn’t ensure protection from future violence. The government, she said, needs to demonstrate that refugees “aren’t going to suffer if they go back.”

She’s not alone in her hesitance to return. In a study last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found that 60 percent of Colombian refugees in Ecuador wish to integrate into Ecuadorian society, which indicates a desire to stay, says Karina Sarmiento, the director of Asylum Access Latin America, a foundation that provides legal aid to Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Sarmiento says the vast bulk of her clients express a wish to stay in the country rather than returning home.

“Sadly, the signing of a peace deal does not necessarily mean peace in Colombia,” she said.

This is in part because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, and the Colombian government are not the only violent actors. Right-wing paramilitary groups, guerillas who split off from the FARC, and smaller gangs who participate in drug trafficking and other criminal activity also contribute to the violence.

Nancy pointed out that in the conflict, scores of peasant farmers have lost land, which in some cases winds up in the hands of large companies. “The government should let the campesinos [Spanish for “peasant farmer”] live in peace and give back their land,” she said.

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center Latin America Program, says that while “peace deals are often followed by an effort at return,” the largest waves of displacement in Colombia happened the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that Colombia’s internally displaced have lived for decades in the places where they settled, rather than their original homes in the country.

Even people who have been displaced within Colombia may be unwilling or unable to return to their place of origin, said Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR’s representative in Colombia. The majority of Colombia’s internally displaced people live in impoverished urban neighborhoods where they are vulnerable to crime and sometimes have difficulty accessing services, especially the many who are squatting illegally.

Many have been displaced from their homes in the countryside, which, says Jaquemet, coincides with a larger global trend of urbanization. Those who do want to return to rural areas need not only a guarantee of peace, but of robust government services and the chance to make a decent living. “We’re talking about the poorest areas of the country, where the government was not present at all,” says Jaquemet. He added, “It takes time to really build a system and to ensure that there is basic health, basic education.”

But Jaquemet is optimistic that at least some people will return and that the peace process represents a major shift “from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.” He says that recently in Colombia he has seen “the quietest weeks in thirty years.”

Colombia’s protracted refugee situation is not an anomaly. According to the U.S. State Department, two-thirds of global refugees today are in protracted refugee situations, meaning the situation has caused more than 25,000 people to flee their homes for more than five years.

The crisis in Syria will soon reach that five year benchmark. Once that happens, says Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Executive Director of Asylum Access, the likelihood of return diminishes. “The longer people spend in exile, the more difficult it can be to go home,” she said.

Photo credit: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 1, 2015: Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Wilson Center Latin America Program, said that internally displaced people are often reluctant to return to their original homes. An earlier version of this article wrongly said that she was speaking about refugees who had fled Colombia altogether.

Megan Alpert was an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016. Twitter: @megan_alpert

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