E.g., 06/30/2024
E.g., 06/30/2024
Colombia: In the Crossfire

Colombia: In the Crossfire

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In the last decade, large-scale emigration has marked Colombian society, with roughly one of every 10 Colombians now living abroad. Internally, the country has been confronted with a major humanitarian crisis, as forced displacement has reached alarming proportions during the same period. Political, social, and economic problems, coupled with widespread insecurity, have fueled both voluntary and forced migration, while the same factors have acted as powerful deterrents for immigration to the country.

After 40 years of armed conflict, various fruitless attempts at peace negotiations, and a persistent drug trade, Colombia remains plagued by violence. The complexity of the conflict is a result of the multiplicity of interests and actors involved, including the government's official forces, left-wing guerrillas — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the much smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) — and extreme-right paramilitary groups.

Over time, the armed confrontation has evolved from an ideology-based conflict to one driven by territorial control and economic interests. Today, irregular armed groups are involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and terrorist activities.

President Alvaro Uribe, elected in 2002 with overwhelming support, has pursued an aggressive "democratic security policy" aimed at establishing a state presence throughout the country, dismantling guerrilla and paramilitary groups, eradicating coca crops, and promoting economic recovery.

While security issues have ranked high on the national political agenda, framed within the U.S.-led global war on drugs and fight against terrorism, the human rights situation remains critical. In this context, migration has become a multifaceted issue as it encompasses both legal and undocumented migration for economic reasons, forced internal displacement, and refugee movements.

An Uneven Migration Balance

Past and present immigration levels to Colombia are strikingly low in comparison to other Latin American countries. This demographic reality is largely attributable to Colombia's turbulent social and political history and ineffective immigration policies.

Starting in the early 1500s, Spain discouraged non-Spaniard immigration to its Kingdom of New Grenada — now Colombia — to prevent other European countries from asserting claims over the colony. Meanwhile, nearly 300,000 Africans were forcibly brought to the colony to supply labor to the mining economy.

After independence in 1819, a lack of economic attractions and successive civil wars provided few incentives for immigration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in contrast to other large Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, Colombia did not encourage immigration on a large scale. During this period, the country received trickling flows of European migrants from Spain, Germany, Italy, and France; non-Europeans from Syria, Lebanon, and China; Jews; and Americans.

After World War II, Colombian policies attempted to stimulate the immigration of European agriculturalists and skilled workers. Procedures for the admission of refugees were also established. However, these policies remained largely unimplemented, partly because the country was immersed in an undeclared civil war known as "La Violencia" (1948-1966).

Since the 1960s, immigration has remained primarily regional with labor migrants coming overwhelmingly from Venezuela and Ecuador. The 1991 constitution set a favorable basis for immigration, but migration levels have remained low due to widespread insecurity.

The most recent regulations, passed in 2005, aim to facilitate work visas for skilled workers and investors. At the same time, increased controls have been imposed on alleged "security grounds" to foreign workers involved in the nongovernmental sector (NGOs), most notably human rights activists.

According to the last national census, in 1993, there were 106,162 foreign born in Colombia, merely representing 0.29 percent of the country's 37 million total population at that time. In contrast, ethnic groups represented a much larger proportion of the population. Local ethnic organizations estimated that indigenous groups represented around two percent and Afro-Colombians about 20 percent of the total Colombian population.

Among the foreign born, Venezuela was the leading source country with 41 percent (about 43,300 people), while Ecuador represented 8.5 percent (about 9,000 people). These immigrants were mainly employed in commerce, but they also worked in services, agriculture, and manufacturing.

The United States accounted for 13 percent of the foreign born (about 13,800 people); they worked primarily in services, commerce, and finance. The remaining foreign born came in much smaller numbers from Spain, Peru, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Panama, and Lebanon. The forthcoming census in 2005 should provide more accurate data on both ethnic groups and immigrants.

In sharp contrast, emigration has been rising in recent years, though it is not an entirely new phenomenon in Colombia. In fact, emigration on a significant scale began in the 1960s and was primarily economically motivated. In the 1970s and 1980s, Venezuela and the United States represented the main destination countries for labor migrants, and these countries still host the majority of Colombian migrants.

Drivers of Recent Emigration: Mid 1990s to the Present

Recent emigration has been driven by both economic and political factors. Between 1996 and mid-2003, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), which is in charge of migration controls, registered 1.6 million Colombians who left the country and did not return; nearly half of them migrated between 1999 and 2001. These peak years correspond to a period of deep internal crisis.

In terms of the economy, the country's level of gross domestic product growth (GDP) plummeted from 5.8 percent in 1995 to -4.05 percent in 1999. Meanwhile, unemployment doubled, reaching 18 percent in urban centers, where three-quarters of the population live.

Poverty and inequality were also rising, with nearly two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line by 2001, while the top 20 percent of the population earned 60 percent of the national income. In the last few years, there has been some moderate economic improvement, but the potential for economic migration remains high due to persisting "push" factors, such as precarious labor conditions, low wages, and job scarcity, even for the highly educated.

Simultaneously, Colombia's political situation deteriorated as the war escalated. Since the early 1990s, civilians have increasingly been converted into military targets as fighting has heightened between guerrillas and paramilitaries for territorial control, particularly over lucrative coca-growing areas.

Violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, such as massacres, selective homicides, torture, disappearances, forced recruitment, and sexual violence, were no longer a by-product of the conflict, but they became deliberate strategies —on the part of both guerrillas and paramilitaries — to terrorize the rural population and thus undermine the presumed "support" they provided to the enemy.

Similarly, displacement to cleanse strategic areas has become an objective in itself, forcing hundreds to flee every day to urban centers or to leave the country. Kidnappings and extortion have also been practiced in all regions of the country by irregular armed groups as means of financing their activities and social control.

The breakdown of peace talks in 2002, after four years of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, darkened the prospects of a political solution to the conflict. In 2003-2004, there was a general reduction in attacks on civilians and violent crimes, which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) attributed to the FARC's strategic retreat in front of the government's military offensive and fewer violations by paramilitary groups as negotiations with the government and demobilization began.

However, the future remains highly uncertain: widespread criticism has been voiced on the legality and lack of transparency of the paramilitary demobilization process, and the FARC have recently launched a number of strong attacks on the army. Therefore, forced migration is likely to continue in the near future.

Economic and political motives are often hard to disentangle as drivers of "voluntary" migration, but it seems clear that politics play an increasingly important role in Colombians' decision to migrate, most commonly expressed in the fear of generalized violence and threats to personal safety or that of close relatives. Prospects of political stability, security, and economic opportunities in other countries act as strong "pull" factors.

Colombian Migration Flows and Policies of Receiving Countries

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were about 770,000 Colombians officially registered in consulates worldwide in 2003, but it is estimated that as many as 4.2 million Colombians live abroad. Among these, approximately 48 percent have migrated to North America; 40 percent to other Latin American and Caribbean countries; 11 percent to Europe; and only one percent to Asia, Oceania, and Africa together (see Table 1). Migration policies of the receiving countries have played a key role in shaping the flows of Colombian migrants.

Table 1. Registered and Estimated Colombian Population Abroad (2003)
Registered in consulates
United States
Subtotal North America
Costa Rica
Subtotal Central America
Dominican Republic
Subtotal Caribbean and Antilles
Subtotal South America
United Kingdom
Subtotal Europe
Subtotal Africa, Asia and Oceania
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombia

In South America, the vast majority of Colombian migrants were found in neighboring countries: Venezuela (84 percent) and to a lesser extent Ecuador (12 percent). Colombian migration to Venezuela began on a large-scale in the early 1970s because of the high demand for labor created by the booming oil economy.

The official census of Venezuela recorded nearly half a million Colombian born by 1981. After 1983, the economic crisis reduced immigration flows and even led to return migration. However, labor movements between Colombia and Venezuela remain significant in the context of regional migration patterns.

Regional migration is primarily regulated within the framework of the Andean Community (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). As part of the efforts towards regional integration, the Andean countries are taking progressive steps towards the free movement of member countries' nationals in the region.

For tourism purposes, only national identification is now required to travel within the Community. The most recent agreements establish the gradual adoption of measures to facilitate labor migration, notably for workers employed in seasonal activities and border areas and to protect the rights of workers with respect to social security.

The effects of regional policies on migration flows are yet to be realized, but the ability of Ecuador and Venezuela to overcome present economic and political instability will largely determine the attractiveness of these destinations for Colombian workers in the future.

In North America, the U.S. has been by far the largest recipient of Colombian migrants, as immigration on a significant scale has been going on for four decades. According to the 2000 census, there were 460,000 Colombian foreign born in the U.S..

However, increased restrictions in the 1990s caused the rate of legal Colombian immigration to the United States to plateau; between 1991 and 2000, over 130,000 Colombian immigrants were admitted for legal permanent residence, a large majority of whom came via family reunification categories. Tighter immigration controls and security issues raised after September 11, 2001 have helped redirect the flows away from the U.S. to new destinations in Europe.

Within Europe, approximately half of Colombian migrants are found in Spain; nearly 20 percent in the United Kingdom; and 13 percent in Italy, according to the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the framework of the European Union's migration regulations, the requirement of an entry visa for Colombians traveling to Spain as of January 2002 created an upsurge in immigration. In Spain, Colombian immigration increased 81 percent in 2000 and a further 97 percent in 2001, according to the Spanish Ministry of Interior. Increased migration controls were only partly compensated by a bilateral labor agreement signed between Spain and Colombia in 2001, which permitted the entry of a limited number of mainly temporary workers, for a total of 1,354 between 2002 and mid-2003.

Internal movement within the European Union should also be noted, as Spain represents a door of entry for many who then move on to other countries where wages are more attractive, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and France.

Undocumented Migration, Human Trafficking, and Organized Crime

An unintended consequence of more restrictive immigration policies in North America and Europe has been the increase in undocumented migration. The magnitude of the undocumented Colombian migrant population is unknown, but partial data in the U.S. and Spain show a rising trend in recent years.

U.S. Department of Homeland security's figures indicate that Colombia is the fourth-leading source country of unauthorized immigration to the United States, as the estimated number of unauthorized Colombian residents has almost tripled in the 1990-2000 decade, reaching 141,000 in 2000.

In Spain, 54,677 applications were made by Colombians during the regularization process completed in 2005. However, the actual undocumented population could well range between 300,000 and 350,000, according to Colombia's leading newspaper El Tiempo. A common strategy among Colombian migrants consists in overstaying tourist visas to remain in these host countries, but human smuggling is all too frequent.

Colombia is also one of the main source countries in Latin America for trafficking in persons. The Administrative Department of Security (DAS) estimates there are between 45,000 and 50,000 Colombian victims abroad, primarily young women forced into prostitution in Asia and Europe. The recently expanded Colombian legislation classifies both human smuggling and trafficking as major offenses. The government has adopted preventive, remedial, and punitive measures against these activities, but prosecution remains minimal.

Furthermore, the expansion and consolidation of the international drug market has generated a considerable demand for labor both in Colombia and abroad. From the 1980s onwards, commercialization activities — logistics, transport, distribution, and sales — created a new avenue for emigration or provided a lucrative incentive for those already living abroad to remain there.

In spite of the fact that only a small minority of migrants have been involved in these illegal activities, the stigma associated with drug trafficking has profoundly marked the Colombian community as a whole.

Remittances and State Policies Targeting Colombians Abroad

Emigration has only become the focus of public and political attention very recently. The greater visibility of the rapidly growing Colombian community abroad was primarily due to the volume of remittances, which have increased more than 20 percent annually since 1999.

According to the Bank of the Republic, in 2003, remittances represented more than three times the revenues generated by coffee exports, two and a half times those of coal, and even surpassed oil exports. In 2004, remittances amounted to US$3.857 million, accounting for four percent of the country's GDP. These resources directly benefit three million Colombians, who spend 80 percent of these funds on food, rent, education, and public services.

Current policy discussions about remittances revolve around making them easier to send and receive, lowering transaction costs, facilitating access to banking, and channeling the money into savings and investments in Colombia while preventing money laundering. The government is also promoting buying homes, investing in pension funds, and starting small business.

Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of designing the country's migration policy, has named strengthening the relationship with Colombians living abroad as one of its strategic objectives. Among key issues are the improvement of migrants' living conditions, the expansion of information and legal assistance services provided in consulates, and the creation of networks to foster the social and economic development of the country.

At the political level, Colombians have the right to dual nationality, as enshrined in the 1991 constitution, and there is a congressional representative for Colombians living abroad. Overall, the political participation of migrants has been very low, but the voting potential of this group is likely to become increasingly important in future political campaigns.

Forced Internal Displacement

Internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to the United Nations, are defined as "persons who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of armed conflicts, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border."

By mid 2005, the Social Solidarity Network, the government's agency responsible for assisting IDPs, calculated there were 1.6 million internally displaced persons in the country. However, the absence of adequate registration procedures before 1995, the distrust many IDPs have towards government institutions, and the fear of reprisals from armed groups are factors that have contributed to low estimates. The Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a leading national human rights organization, estimates that over the 1985-2005 period, 3.5 million Colombians were displaced (see Figure 1).

In spite of these discrepancies, both sets of figures agree that internal displacement has climbed dramatically from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s, reaching a peak of 412,553 of people displaced in 2002.

A year later, this figure dropped by 50 percent, mainly due to changing war dynamics and the blockading of communities, which prevented people from fleeing. According to UNHCR, in 2003, paramilitaries were responsible for 32.7 percent of forced displacements; guerrillas for 22 percent; and actions of both groups together for 42 percent. The remaining displacements were caused by other illegal groups and the Colombian army. In 2004 and 2005 (January to July), internal displacement figures started to climb again, most critically affecting border areas.

Figure 1. Forced Internal Displacement in Colombia
Estimated National Total: 3,563,504
Source: Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES)

Internally displaced persons, particularly women and children, live in extremely vulnerable conditions in marginal areas of Colombia's main cities. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people have been disproportionately affected by displacement. International institutions, such as the Red Cross and UNHCR, national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Catholic Church, have provided humanitarian assistance to IDPs, but the situation remains critical.

Law 387 of 1997 established the state's responsibility for formulating policies and adopting measures for the prevention of internal displacement; it is also responsible for the protection and socioeconomic stabilization of internally displaced persons. IDPs have to register with the Social Solidarity Network in order to be eligible for assistance programs, including food, health, education, housing, and income-generation projects. However, aid has been largely insufficient and national coverage limited.

In 2004, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that the state IDP policy was not providing satisfactory results and declared that an "unconstitutional state of affairs" existed as a result of the massive violations of IDPs' human rights. In response, the government launched a new national assistance plan in 2005 and announced a budget of US$425 million for 2005-2006 to fulfill its obligations towards IDPs, which is the equivalent of the total sum invested over the last 10 years.

Critical issues that will have to be addressed include the prevention of the causes of displacement, the protection of IDPs and provision of emergency aid, the development of productive projects, the adjudication of land, and safe conditions for voluntary return.

Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Border Issues

In recent years, there has been a rising trend of Colombian asylum claims worldwide. By the end of 2003, UNHCR estimated the number of refugees from Colombia at 38,080 (see Table 2). However, the U.S. Committee for Refugees affirmed in 2004 that "at least 290,000 Colombians lived in refugee-like circumstances in various countries of the Americas."

Table 2. Refugees from Colombia, 2003
Country of asylum
2003 (end year)
United States
Costa Rica
United Kingdom
Source: UNHCR

Among industrialized countries, claims from Colombia ranged between 1,000 and 2,500 per year in the 1990s, but this figure steadily increased to 12,700 in 2002. In 2003, the U.S. recognized 3,250 Colombian asylum seekers as refugees, and Canada recognized 1,960. The same year, these two countries were also the largest recipients of resettled Colombian refugees.

In the United States, Colombians asked successive presidential administrations to grant them temporary protected status (TPS), which has so far been denied. The United States can grant TPS to eligible nationals of designated countries who face a serious threat to personal safety if returned to their country of origin, but who do not qualify for asylum and have no other legal status in the U.S.. In bilateral meetings, the Colombian government has raised the issue, which still remains on the political agenda.

In Latin America, Costa Rica granted asylum to a large number of Colombians until a visa requirement was imposed in 2002, which caused the number of claims to drop dramatically. Among countries sharing a border with Colombia, Ecuador has received the largest number of claims, but the approval rate decreased from 80 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2004.

Venezuela had only approved 47 Colombian refugees by the end of 2003, with more than 2,000 claims still pending. Local NGOs estimate there are approximately 130,000 undocumented Colombians in Venezuela's border areas, of which 15,000 require protection.

Although Panama has accepted a limited number of refugees, it has officially conducted large-scale repatriations. Since the borders with Peru and Brazil are scarcely populated areas, fewer Colombian asylum claims have been made in these countries. Since 2002, Brazil has been working with UNHCR to resettle Colombian refugees; more than 100 were resettled by the end of 2004.

Refugee movements have remained largely invisible until recently, when the spillover of the Colombian conflict seriously began to affect neighboring countries. Colombia's 6,000-kilometer border is difficult to secure as it consists for the most part of jungle, desert, and mountain regions.

These areas have thus been used by irregular armed groups to launch military operations, traffic arms, drugs, and chemicals used in coca processing, and to allow troops to resupply, rest, and retreat from attacks. As a result, civilians fleeing the war are commonly labeled as "criminals" or "IDPs in transit" by border authorities. Deportations that put refugee lives at risk are daily occurrences.

Since the late 1990s, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela, have attempted to close their borders through increased militarization and migration controls. Their main concern is preventing the Colombian conflict from spilling into their territories.

In 2004-2005, the deteriorating security situation in border areas led the Colombian government to hold several bilateral meetings with Venezuela and Ecuador. Irregular cross-border movements have been discussed, but the refugee question has so far been downplayed in relation to security concerns.

Issues of Ongoing Concern

Migration has gained increased public visibility in the last decade through its growing impact on the national economy, domestic policies, and foreign relations. Colombians living abroad are, at least at the formal level, considered an integral part of the nation as expressed in the government's foreign policy.

Given the growing economic significance of remittances, Colombian migrants are increasingly likely to become the object of public policies and the target of political campaigning. The risk of dependence on remittances at the family level will largely depend on the government's capacity to create incentives to convert these flows into savings and investments that will effectively contribute to longer-term social and economic development. Meanwhile, more attractive economic opportunities abroad combined with the effect of chain migration will likely continue to fuel emigration.

Beyond current political debates, the success or failure of key domestic policies will have far-reaching implications for future migration flows. These include the military offensive against guerrillas to establish legitimate control over previously abandoned regions; the complete demobilization of paramilitaries and the respect of victims' right to justice and reparation; and the efforts to combat the production and trafficking of narcotics along with the development of crop substitution alternatives.

At present, government military operations carried out in the FARC's traditional strongholds, such as the Plan Patriota in the south of the country, have intensified armed conflict in border areas. Border relations with Ecuador have recently deteriorated while those with Venezuela remain tense. The continuing spillover of the conflict could contribute to higher visibility of IDPs seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

The protection of IDPs, asylum seekers, and refugees will largely depend on the political will of neighboring countries' to uphold their endorsement of international protocols on refugees and to implement joint actions with the Colombian government to address the humanitarian crisis.

Finally, increased restrictions in receiving countries — regionally, in North America, and Europe — will continue to have a serious impact on the human rights of migrants as long as the worldwide tendency to link migration flows with security issues persists.

The author would like to thank Diana Lopez Castañeda from Colombia Nos Une of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for her assistance.


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