Colombia: Two Crises in One Country

This month, I travelled to Colombia for Refugees International to investigate the situation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants. But it soon became clear to me that it was impossible to look only at the situation of Venezuelans in Colombia when they are arriving in a country where there are still 7.7 million internally displaced people amid ongoing internal armed conflict. 

The 2016 peace agreement has brought many benefits to Colombia. But that agreement was reached with only one of the armed groups that was party to the civil war. Other armed groups continue to operate. In 2018, there was a 113 percent increase in the number of Colombians who were forced from their homes by violence, and a 32 percent increase in attacks against the civilian population by armed actors, in comparison with 2017.

When I visited a shelter in Cúcuta at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, I spoke with many Venezuelan refugees and migrants staying there. However, I also met a Colombian family recently displaced from their home and still in shock from their experiences.

The family has six children, and the mother is again pregnant. The father is a farmer who cultivates yucca. They are from a rural area in Colombia dominated by armed groups and were displaced for the first time in April 2018 when there was a confrontation between armed groups near their home. The family had to flee the area but were able to return after a short while. Then in mid-September 2018, an armed group killed a close family member. Their daughter was interviewed by the police, and two months later, armed men came to their house and demanded to know where she was. The armed men made threats against the family. Fearing for their lives, they fled to Cúcuta, where they had been living for a couple of weeks. They were fearful about what would happen to them once their time in the shelter ran out. The mother started crying while telling me about her fears for the future of her family. 

When they were first displaced, the family had gone to ask for help from the government departments that are supposed to provide emergency assistance and reparations to victims of the armed conflict. However, despite fitting all of the criteria for assistance, they were denied aid. Now they were appealing for help again, this time with the support of NGOs like the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Norwegian Refugee Council, as well as the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. I was told that their experience illustrates a common problem. The authorities lack resources necessary to attend to victims of the conflict, and most people can only get help from the system if they have the UN or an NGO accompanying them to argue their case. 

The family is too scared to return home, so they plan on staying in Cúcuta. But they lived all of their lives in a rural area and feel lost in the city, having suddenly been cut off from all of their community ties. The father was wondering what he would do in the city since his skills are agricultural. 

Sadly, this family’s story is just one example of many who continue to be victims of the ongoing internal conflict in Colombia. And it is into this context that many Venezuelans who are fleeing a very different crisis in their country are now arriving. Many of the Venezuelans pouring into Colombia do not have identity documents and struggle to find ways to survive. Since armed groups do not ask for official documents, many Venezuelans feel compelled to seek refuge in the areas run by these groups. Desperate for employment, they often find themselves working for the armed criminal groups, forced into cultivating coca or sex work. 

Thus, the two crises have become intertwined. The influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants has exacerbated the Colombian internal conflict by providing more desperate recruits for the armed groups. And the conflict has created new and grave dangers for the Venezuelans who are arriving. 

The solidarity that the Colombian government and people have shown in receiving more than a million Venezuelans in a short span of time is deeply impressive. The international community must provide support to them to assist with the costs of reception and integration of this huge influx of people. 

However, it would be very short-sighted to only focus assistance on the Venezuelans when there is an ongoing internal humanitarian crisis in Colombia too. International assistance and attention must also focus on the needs of the victims of the ongoing conflict in Colombia, including the many internally displaced people. If not, the consequences for both Colombians and Venezuelans living in these areas could be serious. 

Melanie Teff, an expert on displacement crises, is a consultant for Refugees International. She traveled to Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago in November 2018 on a Refugees International field mission to research the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis in those contexts.