printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Internal Displacement in Colombia and Beyond: An International Framework for Protection and Assistance

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Washington, DC
October 5, 2011


 This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, which defines the rights of refugees and the legal obligation of States to protect them. The Refugee Convention was a landmark achievement of international law that embodies the principle of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution across borders. Its enduring legacy is evident in the efforts of humanitarians, donor governments, and international and non-governmental organizations, working day-in and day-out to protect people forced to flee their countries of origin.

Though an international protection regime for refugees has been in place in the decades following the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, international action and support of those forced from their homes but who remain within the borders of their countries of origin – internally displaced persons (IDPs) – has been much later in coming.

This is not particularly surprising. IDPs remain subject to the jurisdiction of their national governments, which have fundamental responsibilities to address the well-being and security of their own citizens. Even in those cases where governments lack the capacity or the will to protect their nationals, officials are often loathe to sanction the humanitarian engagement or intervention of outsiders.

Of course, the reality is that there is often very little that separates the circumstances of a refugee from those of IDPs – they are on the run, they lack basic necessities, they are at risk, and they cannot always count on adequate support from the national government that has jurisdiction over the area to which they have fled. In fact, to a greater extent than refugees, the internally displaced often find themselves near, or even trapped within, zones of conflict, caught in cross-fire, and at risk of being used as pawns, targets or human shields.

In recent decades, we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and rape as a weapon of war in the Congo – and in these cases, most of the victims were in their countries of origin.

Thankfully, we have also witnessed a growing recognition that the protection of internally displaced persons is the legitimate concern of the international community.

Some two decades ago, there were a number of significant efforts at the United Nations to consider the protection of internally displaced persons, including the appointment in 1992 of Dr. Francis Deng as the Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons. These developments led ultimately to the presentation by Dr. Deng of “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” developed under the auspices of the Brookings Institution.

As Dr. Deng indicated when they were issued in 1998, “[t]he Principles…provide protection against arbitrary displacement, offer a basis of protection and assistance during displacement, and set forth guarantees for safe return, resettlement and reintegration.” At about the same time, the UN Human Rights Commission adopted a resolution that took note of the Guidelines, which were also welcomed and endorsed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee – the key UN-supported committee of international and non-governmental humanitarian organizations.

While Dr. Deng acknowledged that the Principles do not constitute a binding instrument, he noted that they are “consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law and analogous refugee law.”

Thus, in effect, the Principles largely reflect binding international human rights and humanitarian obligations, such as non-discrimination, protection from arbitrary displacement, protection of individual liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and expression, and basic procedural safeguards that help to ensure solutions to displacement.

Unfortunately, there is ample daily evidence of the critical need for the Guiding Principles. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, established by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 1998, over 27.5 million people were internally displaced by conflict or violence worldwide as of December 2010.

IDPs are among the world's most vulnerable groups; they often have higher poverty, malnutrition, and mortality rates than the general population, and they are exposed to greater dangers of sexual and gender-based violence, and racial or ethnic discrimination. Access to jobs, housing, and services like healthcare and education is limited for most IDPs – more often, these essential daily services are simply out of reach.

The Guiding Principles have become the acknowledged and broad international framework for the protection of IDPs, a framework now supported by a range of operational agencies that have taken on the IDP challenge. For instance, among the specialized UN agencies, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken the lead coordination role for the protection of IDPs displaced by conflict and also the lead role for camp management and emergency shelter in conflict situations involving IDPs.

UNHCR’s efforts are supplemented by a broad array of NGOs, international organizations, and, of course, donor governments.

While some governments still view international engagement on IDP issues with suspicion, it is encouraging that many, if not most, no longer regard people displaced within their countries as strictly a national problem – and they regularly request outside involvement and aid to address displacement – whether caused by internal conflict or disasters resulting from natural hazards.

For example, UNHCR is currently providing protection to Ugandans who have been internally displaced by decades of aggression at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army; to Sri Lankans who remain out of their home villages due to the lingering ravages of civil war; and to internally displaced Iraqis whose concerns about security prevent them from returning to their homes.

Notwithstanding some progress, there remains a yawning gap between the international community’s good intentions and the reality on the ground for millions of IDPs. The critical factor in filling that gap will be actions by national governments to ensure that the Guiding Principles inform the development of domestic action on these critical issues.

In fact, the Principles have formed the basis for laws and policies in a number of countries, including Colombia, and that is most essential – as domestic implementation is critical to turn the promise of the Guiding Principles into practical reality. In addition, under the auspices of the African Union, African states took steps in 2009 designed to establish new norms and practices for the protection of IDPs through the adoption of the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa.

To its credit, Colombia now has some of the most comprehensive and advanced IDP legislation in the world. Law 387, enacted in 1997, anticipated many of the measures that were included in the Guiding Principles, outlining official responsibilities for prevention, protection, and assistance to persons displaced by violence. Of course, Colombia’s judiciary and political system have based judgments and policy on the Principles and Colombia’s Constitutional Court has been in the forefront of shaping the national response toward IDPs.

The Constitutional Court's actions have compelled official support for improving IDP response, with a particular focus on support for vulnerable populations such as indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian citizens, and women, children, and the disabled.

While the situation for many Colombian IDPs and refugees remains precarious, there has indeed been progress in responding to displacement.

The Colombian government has registered more than 3.6 million IDPs since 1997 and its IDP budget has increased from approximately $67 million in 2003 to more than $750 million in 2011. Officials have also made progress in improving security in cities and towns throughout Colombia, which has contributed to an overall decline in displacement. The government's IDP figures show approximately 120,000 persons displaced in 2010, compared with over 171,000 in 2009.

While this level of new displacement is still a matter of deep concern, it is considerably lower than the estimated 400,000 and 450,000 persons displaced in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Colombian civil society, and in particular courageous IDP leaders and advocates, deserve credit for much of the progress that has occurred, as advocacy has clearly had an impact on policy.

The challenge, of course, is further implementation of prior decisions, and of proposals to prevent further displacement, to protect and assist those already displaced and to find solutions for them – including the recovery of their land. Moreover, new displacement continues – especially in border areas and other remote locations. Many people who have been displaced through the years are still in search of durable solutions – be it return, relocation, or local integration.

The historic and groundbreaking Victims’ and Land Restitution Law, the recent announcement by Colombia of a donation of $500,000 to UNHCR in support of Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and the renewal of dialogue between Colombia and Ecuador on refugee returns, represent encouraging signals that, with careful attention to the need to ensure the safety, security and dignity of IDPs and refugees, can open doors to durable solutions and long-term stability. Defining these solutions in ways that allow the "effective enjoyment of rights" and the end to a person's displacement, as envisioned by Colombia's Constitutional Court, is important and necessary. And of course, we are deeply concerned that IDP leaders have been threatened and killed as a result of their efforts to advocate for IDP interests. Perpetrators of such abuses must be held accountable.

In short, there is still so much more that needs to be done. But with engaged and committed government leadership, and the continued active support from the Colombian public, progress is certainly very feasible. While the government and civil society will continue to drive this process, others are trying to help. The government’s efforts to strengthen IDP response have been supported and complemented by the international community, in general, and by the U.S. government, in particular.

Over the past year, the U.S. government provided more than $78 million in humanitarian and other assistance to Colombian IDPs and refugees in the region. The State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration programmed over $38 million to international organizations and NGOs, including $10.3 million to UNHCR, $7.2 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and over $19 million in programs with other international organization and NGO partners. The U.S. Agency for International Development and its partners provide non-emergency, longer-term social and economic assistance following the first several months of displacement – including over $40 million specifically for IDP programs in the last fiscal year.

PRM also has a broad range of NGO and other international partner organizations in Colombia, including CHF International, Mercy Corps, International Relief and Development, and the Pan American Health Organization. U.S. government funds to these organizations provide emergency humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Colombia for the first three to six months after displacement, including food and non-food items, shelter, health, and psychosocial support to vulnerable populations, Afro-Colombians, indigenous persons, women, and children – all of whom are severely affected by displacement.

Last year alone, PRM provided $10 million for programs in areas in Colombia with significant Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations, directly benefiting an estimated 36,000 Afro-Colombians and nearly 9,000 indigenous persons. Women, especially single female-headed households, also make up nearly 66 percent of the direct beneficiaries in PRM-supported assistance programs.

Our goal is to fill assistance gaps and build capacity of national and local governments, IDP associations, and civil society to improve the quality of assistance and services available for IDPs. For example, we support NGO partners working with the Colombian government's Orientation and Assistance Units, which provide IDPs access to many different agencies in a single location, and assistance to municipal governments in developing and implementing emergency response plans.

Through such cooperation and coordination, PRM partners are better able to assist and advise IDPs in accessing government programs, and are also able to assist government agencies in improving their services.

Preventing and responding to gender-based violence in Colombian IDP and refugee communities is also one of our priority activities.

The Obama Administration has made clear its commitment to promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls around the world, and Secretary Clinton has stated that women and girls are a “core factor” in U.S. foreign policy. For us at PRM, this means continuing our efforts to mainstream gender issues into our programming in humanitarian settings, including in Colombia and the greater Andes region. We seek to help prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and to violence directed at individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We also work to ensure the participation of displaced women and girls in peace building initiatives and other political and security processes. We have seen progress in Colombia, where one important component of the government's response to gender-based violence is the implementation of the Constitutional Court's 2008 ruling regarding the need to address the disproportionate impact that displacement has on women.

During my visit to Colombia earlier this year, I was impressed by the commitment of the government, the Constitutional Court, and civil society to continue to focus on the impact of displacement and on finding practical, long-term solutions for those who have been forced to flee their homes.

The Government of the United States recognizes that the protection of a country’s most vulnerable citizens is ultimately the responsibility of the national government. But we also recognize our obligation to help, and to support multilateral efforts to assist in addressing the needs of victims of conflict.

We take this approach because it is the right thing to do – it responds to the moral imperative of safeguarding and saving lives. In addition, responding to the needs of the displaced in Colombia – or in any other country around the world – offers us the chance to avoid the despair, alienation, and desperation that can undermine security and well-being.

It also offers the potential for reconciliation, for peace, and for a brighter future for all.

Thank you.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.