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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. Recently, think of wars in Israel and Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine and Russia and Syria. Wars and hunger accompanied by large flows of refugees to Europe is still 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. To which Venezuela has been added in recent years. 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 2022, there were nearly 1 million asylum applications in the European Union; the highest number since 2016. The largest increases in asylum applications occurred in Ireland, Croatia and Austria. But asylum applications also rose in Germany, Spain and France.

Most asylum seekers in the EU come from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Turkey (totaling nearly 40 percent of all applications). And since 2022, millions of refugees from Ukraine have also been added. (source)

There are also some 75 million displaced people worldwide. The top five countries with the most displaced people are Ukraine (8 million), Syria (7.6 million), Ethiopia (5.5 million), Congo (5.2 million) and Colombia (4.9 million). (source)

When you travel to Colombia you would not expect this, but unfortunately this is also the reality here.


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, including the ELN on the one hand, and the government army and illegal paramilitaries on the other, has already claimed the lives of more than 250,000 Colombians and displaced millions.

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)

Other forms of violence also did (and still 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 kidnapped by the FARC in 2002.

Meanwhile, the guerrilla movement FARC no longer exists, but many guerrillas switched to other movements.


Shocking figures about refugees in Colombia

Colombia has a population of more than 50 million. Of these, over 5 million (!) have fled their homes due to conflicts and are now displaced. Every year, the ongoing conflict continues to add thousands of new displaced people. In fact, for years Colombia was the country with the most displaced people in the world (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, in 2014 there were about 300 of them. These asylum seekers came from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other countries. Meanwhile, since 2022, because of the crisis in Venezuela, more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to get asylum. (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 millions of 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. Consider the wonderful foundations Children of Medellín and Mi Barrio Mi Sueño.

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 this paradise for so many years is incomprehensible. As much as 12% of Colombia’s population is displaced, a bizarrely high percentage. And in recent years, you see Venezuelan refugees begging everywhere in major cities. A status no one deserves. Just like all the other refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going to be solved overnight, and may actually be exacerbated by the country’s income inequality. Fortunately, both foreign tourists and Colombians themselves can travel in Colombia. Which gives many people jobs. Do your part by visiting a foundation or making a donation, or by traveling responsibly. Stay in small family-run hotels or hostels instead of big chains, eat at local restaurants and do your shopping at local small stores.

And enjoy beautiful Colombia, a paradise on earth.

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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