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The shocking truth about refugees in Colombia

by Sabine
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Almost always there is war or conflict somewhere in the world. The war in Syria accompanied by large flows of refugees into Europe is currently world news. But beyond this European crisis, all sorts of things are happening outside the West. Colombia, for example, has been at war for more than 50 years; one of the world’s greatest forgotten crises. A conflict that the Western media hardly report on anymore. For example, what do you know about refugees in Colombia? Read on and discover what lies behind those beautiful green Colombian mountains.

What is a refugee?

Different terms are used interchangeably when talking about refugees. Therefore, to avoid confusion, I first give some definitions of terms you will encounter in this article:

  • Asylum seeker: a person who seeks political asylum in a country in which he thinks he can live better or more safely (source);
  • Refugee: a person who has fled his country because of fear of violence or his life. In the Netherlands, a person is a refugee only when he has successfully completed the asylum procedure and thus obtained asylum and thus refugee status (source);
  • Displaced person: someone who is forced to flee from home or residence, but remains within the borders of his/her own country. A displaced person often has the same reasons as a refugee, such as war or other kind of violence, and should be protected by his own country. Something that is often not the case (source).

The numbers: how many asylum seekers, refugees and displaced persons are there worldwide?

In 2015, there were 1.26 million asylum applications in the European Union, most of them in Hungary, Sweden and Austria. The Netherlands counted some 45,000 asylum requests in 2015, of which 18,000 came from Syria (source). About 250,000 refugees live in the Netherlands, representing only 1.5% of the total population.

More than 60 million people are fleeing worldwide, including about 20 million refugees and nearly 40 million displaced persons (source). Of this bizarrely large group of displaced people, some 65% are from just 5 conflict and violence-ridden countries: Syria, Colombia, Iraq, Congo and Sudan (source).

Colombia: a humanitarian crisis

Behind the beautiful green Colombian mountains lies a fierce and very complex history that continues to this day after more than 50 years. The armed conflict between guerrilla movements, such as the FARC and the ELN on the one hand, and the government army and illegal paramilitaries on the other, has already claimed the lives of more than 220,000 Colombians, and many have been displaced.

Today, the conflict focuses on the struggle over control and management of natural resources, in which the drug trade plays an important role. The drug industry means that thousands of farmers have been forced to leave their land to expand coca cultivation. Kidnappings, beatings and murder were not shunned and have created one of the largest displaced populations in the world. Some 7 million hectares of land were abandoned or forcibly taken from the local population. (source, source)

Other forms of violence also did and do cause people to flee. Colombia struggled with the highest murder rates in the world just a few years ago, and the number of kidnappings was also unprecedented. Motives for these murders were political, economic or social. Many kidnappings were committed for ransom and sometimes for political reasons. Perhaps the most famous is the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, who was abducted by the FARC in 2002.

Shocking figures on refugees in Colombia

Colombia has a population of more than 47 million. Of these, over 6 million (!) have fled the country due to conflicts and are now displaced. Every year, the ongoing conflict continues to add thousands of new displaced people. For years, Colombia was even the country with the most displaced people in the world (source), but due to the war in the Middle East, Syria has now taken this dishonorable first spot with 8 million displaced people (source). With nearly 400,000 refugees, Colombia also remains among the countries with the most refugees (source).

When you see these numbers you might not expect it, but there are also people who come to Colombia precisely to seek a better life and seek asylum here. According to figures, there were about 300 in 2014. These asylum seekers come from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other countries(source).

What are the implications and what is the government doing?

The situation in Colombia has greatly improved in recent years, but major problems remain. Because what happens to those 6 million displaced people? Colombia may be a large country, but in many rural areas these people cannot live. So about 80% move from the countryside to the city in search of security and a better future. But do these vulnerable people really find the happiness they hope for?

Many displaced families earn only $70 a month. And in increasingly crowded cities, it is not easy to find work. Many displaced people are farmers and have no education. To provide education, President Santos decided in 2012 to make primary and secondary education free. This is wonderful, of course, but insufficient for the thousands of poor children. This is because the family must provide their own school uniforms and books, which many families cannot afford. This causes many children to have to work to provide for their families’ basic needs. In 2014, Colombia was estimated to have about 1.1 million child laborers. In addition, many adolescent girls work in prostitution to survive. (source)

Also, many NGOs and international aid organizations are working in Colombia to improve the situation for these people and to try to do something about the humanitarian crisis.

Beyond Paradise

Colombia is a fantastic country: so beautiful with such lovely people. A country that has so much to offer and is a paradise on earth due to its extensive flora and fauna. That so much misery has lain behind that facade for years is incomprehensible. As much as 12% of Colombia’s population is displaced, a bizarrely high percentage. A status no one deserves. Just like all the other refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers in the rest of the world. Although I have my doubts, I still hope that the current peace process can begin to contribute something to the secure and better future that so many hope for. And that we can confidently explore parts of Colombia that are currently too dangerous. But once that danger has passed, an insanely beautiful paradise will emerge there too.

Disclaimer: With great care, I have compiled the information in this article. However, it is possible that different sources reflect different information, because not everything is clear or well recorded. In addition, figures on refugees and displaced persons in Colombia cannot be determined with certainty because many refugees are not registered. So the number could be much higher. The information in this article is not complete, as it requires a book to tell everything about this conflict. I kept it short. If you want to know more, click on the source behind the relevant piece.

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