Colombia’s Forgotten Refugees

By · February 12, 2000 · Save & Share

During 1999 we were inundated with news coverage of civilians fleeing state-sponsored violence in Kosovo and East Timor. For weeks our television screens were filled with the images of some one million Kosovar Albanians seeking refuge from the Serbian army and pro-Serb militias. We watched in horror as pro-Indonesian paramilitaries slaughtered East Timorese civilians who dared to remain in their homes. But what about Colombia? Where are the nightly news reports on the plight of the 1.7 million Colombians that have been displaced by that country’s ongoing civil war?

The number of Colombians displaced by the war between the Colombian army and leftist guerrillas far exceeds the number of refugees in East Timor. It even exceeds the number of Kosovar Albanians forced to flee Serb repression. And yet, in spite of the fact that Colombian refugees currently constitute the third largest displaced population in the world, behind only the Sudanese and Angolans, their plight receives little attention from the mainstream media.

In 1999, more than 288,000 Colombians fled their homes as a result of the fighting, bringing the total to more than 1.7 million since 1985. Some of these refugees are currently living in temporary camps established by aid organizations, however, the huge majority are forced to fend for themselves. Entire peasant families have abandoned their rural homes for a life of poverty in the burgeoning slums of Colombia’s cities, others have fled to neighboring countries, and ever-increasing numbers are seeking refuge illegally in the United States.

The reason for their displacement is not dissimilar to what occurred in the Kosovo and East Timor conflicts: a civil war in which brutal pro-government paramilitaries, closely allied with the military, target the civilian population. According to Human Rights Watch, paramilitaries are responsible for 78 percent of the human rights violations in Colombia. These paramilitaries work closely with the Colombian army, which in turn is receiving ever-increasing levels of U.S. military aid. It is these paramilitary forces that are primarily responsible for the ongoing displacement of civilians from their homes.

In order to undermine the principal base of guerrilla support–the peasant population–the Colombian army and its paramilitary allies have implemented U.S.-inspired counterinsurgency tactics that aim to “eliminate the fish by draining the sea.” This goal is achieved through massacres, disappearances and, as a result of the terror instilled by such tactics, a mass exodus of the peasant population from the targeted region.

The Clinton Administration continues to focus on a military solution to the conflict which is evident in the huge $1.3 billion aid proposal for Colombia–already the third largest recipient of U.S. aid behind Israel and Egypt–with more than 80 percent of it earmarked to the Colombian military and security forces. The Clinton Administration, which rarely acknowledges the Colombian refugee crisis, has recently received a request from a bipartisan group in Congress to provide Temporary Protective Status for Colombians who have fled, and continue to flee, their homeland. Temporary Protective Status would allow 60,000 to 80,000 Colombians to live and work in the United States for up to 18 months. However, approval is far from guaranteed.

Historically, the U.S. has been slow to grant asylum to refugees fleeing countries whose governments were closely allied to the United States. For most of the 1980s less than 2 percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees were granted political asylum in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of civilians were being slaughtered by their own government. It was felt that granting asylum to these refugees would be an acknowledgement of the repression practiced by the U.S.-supported governments. Using Cold War logic, if the repression isn’t acknowledged, then it doesn’t exist. At the same time, the Reagan Administration maintained a virtual open door policy for Cuban refugees whose lives were rarely at risk in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Hence, the repression is acknowledged, therefore it must exist.

It appears that U.S. policy today continues to function under the same guidelines. It was easy, and convenient, to vilify Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb forces whilst commiserating with the defenseless Kosovar refugees. In East Timor the notoriously repressive Indonesian military, a dispensable former Cold War ally, was an easy target for Clinton Administration sanctions whilst we sympathized with the plight of the displaced East Timorese. However, Colombia falls into a different category than Kosovo and East Timor. As was the case in El Salvador and Guatemala, an official acknowledgement of the refugee problem would more than likely illuminate its cause: that the paramilitaries primarily responsible for Colombia’s refugee and human rights crisis are closely allied with a military we are actively supporting.

For its part, the European Union approved $7 million in funding to help establish new communities for the displaced in Colombia. Although it’s a step in the right direction, this amount is far too small to cope with a problem that, especially in light of increasing U.S. military aid to Colombia, will inevitably worsen.

In the meantime, the plight of the Colombian refugees, unlike their counterparts in Kosovo and East Timor, will continue to go unnoticed. It appears that as long as U.S. policymakers refuse to acknowledge the Colombian refugee problem, so will the mainstream media. And therefore, the problem doesn’t exist.

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