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Protecting the State from Refugees: Asylum Policy Towards Colombian claimants

Yesterday marked World Refugee Day.

In light of the observation, I would encourage people to check out the Canadian Council for Refugees and the work that they are doing to promote refugee rights, particularly in response to the ‘Refugee Exclusion Act’ or Bill C-30 and the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Jason Kenney last year.

I also think it’s a good time to reflect on, both in the global and Canadian context, the ever increasing challenges and marginalizations which forced migrants are facing. Therefore, I wanted to share this little piece I wrote a while back about Canadian and Ecuadorean asylum policy and its increasingly restrictive nature. This is by no means an extensive review of the literature, ideas, challenges, or experiences which Colombian asylum seekers face, but just a brief reflection on what are (to me) some key issues. I encourage constructive feedback in the comments section.

A quick note on the numbers: When I wrote this, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) took the CODHES number on IDPs in Colombia at the time, which was 5.4 million, and now the latest number is actually 5.5 million. The government estimates of IDPs also have since increased.

Protecting the State from Refugees: Canadian and Ecuadorean Asylum Policy Towards Colombian Migrants

Since 1964, my native Colombia has been at war with itself. This near 50-year conflict, and state-sponsored violence both under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs created one of the worlds’ largest forced migration crisis. Official figures put the number of displaced Colombians at 3.9 million, making Colombia only second to Sudan in terms of internal displacement; non-government figures however, put the number at 5.4 million or over 10% of the entire population, and making Colombia the world’s leading country in internal displacement (IDMC).

Nevertheless, the violence of forced displacement is not contained to Colombia’s borders. During the height of the war, an estimated 300,000 to no less than one million Colombians are said to have fled due to the armed violence (Gottwald 517). Many of these refugees fled to Ecuador, who has been internationally lauded for its supposedly liberal and humanitarian policies for allowing Colombian refugees in. At the same time, Colombia has for over a decade been one of the top 10 source countries for Canada’s refugee system (Citizenship and Immigration Canada a). However, since 2012 in Ecuador, and since 2011 in Canada, both of these systems have come under  scrutiny for having become more restrictive and trying to defend themselves against refugees instead of trying to protect refugees from the forces which persecute them. Both of these developments are linked to perceived security concerns, and political discourses and narratives which securitize refugee policy and depend on characterizations of refugees as suspicious individuals abusing a generous system, and placing an unfair burden on the resources of the host country. In Ecuador, this is exacerbated by an association of Colombians with violence and drug trafficking, and regional interests in relation to how the Colombian armed conflict needs to be framed. In Canada, these concerns are part of a larger change in legitimating certain kinds of migrants (economic ones) and delegitmating the most vulnerable (asylum claimants, framed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney as potentially being ‘bogus’ refugees) (Bradimore and Bauder 2011). Therefore, in both Ecuador and Canada, I argue that immigration policy is largely about image management and driven by popular perceptions of immigration, to the detriment of Colombian asylum seekers. Firstly, let me discuss both countries recent changes to their historically open asylum policies that have particularly benefited Colombians (first with Ecuador, then Canada), then a comparison of both, and finally a critique of how both are exacerbating the vulnerability of this already extremely marginalized and threatened population.

Ecuador, although not a ‘traditional’ humanitarian developed liberal democratic state receiving large amounts of immigration like say the United States, Australia, or Canada, is definitely a country that has been recognized as having received an enormous amounts of (forced) migrants. This  country has the largest amount of refugees in the Western hemisphere (Applebaum 2012). Over 98.5% of these are Colombians, most likely displaced by violence from Colombia’s armed conflict (Applebaum 2012). Ecuador is a signatory to both the 1951 Geneva Convention, outlining the traditional Cold War era-focused definition of a refugee, as well as the 1976 Protocol. More importantly, Ecuador is also signatory to the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees; this declaration, although not legally binding, set out a framework for Latin American asylum policy which was more sensitive to the needs at the time where civil wars in both Central and South America were at their height, and with a definition of refugee that was more relevant than the 1951 one. This definition included people who were fleeing ‘massive human rights violations’, ‘generalized violence’ and ‘disturbances to the public order’ (White 1).  From 2000 to 2004, Ecuador accepted 27,000 Colombian refugees, an unprecedented number in that amount of time, far surpassing the rest of Colombia’s neighbours (Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil) who together with Ecuador have over the last decade received the bulk of Colombia’s externally displaced population (Gottwald 532). Many of these refugees were at first accepted prima facie in Ecuador under the definition outlined by the Cartagena Declaration which, true to its purpose, fits quite nicely with the context of people fleeing the Colombian armed conflict (Gottwald 531). For many Colombians fleeing violence from armed groups such as the paramilitaries, the Marxist guerrillas, and the Colombian army in the Pacific, one of the poorest and most conflict-affected areas of Colombia, going to Ecuador is an attractive option. This has raised dramatically the amount of Colombian refugees arriving in Ecuador; in 2000 Ecuador received less than 500 asylum applicants, to 45,000 in 2007 (Riaño and Villa 59). Ecuador is a key actor therefore in the issue of Colombian forced migration.

Given this escalating crisis, the overburdened and under-resourced Ecuadorean refugee system, although relatively liberal and generous compared to the rest of Colombia’s neighbours, the system began to become more restrictive in 2002 when the Cartagena Declaration definition was no longer applied (Gottwald 533). Moreover, Colombians would be arbitrarily denied refugee status because of stigma against them and, although recognized as one of the better options for Colombian refugees, only a third of asylum claimants would be accepted. Ecuadoreans would generally reject Colombians, except for mass displacements resulting from well-known, highly-publicized, and documented massacres (Korovkin 325). Therefore, Ecuadorean asylum policy may not be as ‘humanitarian’ as it may appear.

The most pressing concerns however, are related to recent changes and Ecuador’s political interests in the framing of the Colombian armed conflict. In 2012, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa issued Decree 1182, vastly restricting options for refugees in Ecuador in an effort to consolidate refugee laws and hopefully regulate the estimated thousands of Colombians who migrated, forcibly and voluntarily, and illegally. Decree 1182 cut down the amount of time for asylum claimants to submit their claims by half, and greatly reduced the time for refugees to organize and submit appeals to decisions (Littell 2012). Decree 1182 also begins to speak for the first time of repatriation, which would reduce the burden of hosting Colombian refugees, but would send them potentially back into danger (Litell 2012). The Decree also ignores the relevant Cartagena definition, opting for the Cold War relic of the 1951 Convention Refugee determination, focusing on individual persecution and not generalized violence.

This decree, and its associated problems and effects, are rooted in a very specific discourse around Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Firstly, with tens of thousands of refugees flooding into a relatively small and underdeveloped country, with an under-resourced refugee department and a weak UNHCR presence, the system is overloaded; moreover, it is in the interests of the Ecuadorean government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas, as well as the Colombian government itself, to downplay the transnational nature of an issue like forced migration (Gottwald 527). The Colombian government wants to keep the war a domestic issue that it can deal with within the auspices of its own sovereignty. Also, both Ecuador and the FARC want to downplay the fact that the FARC has been present in Ecuador for over a decade, being that the Ecuadorean government has been either unwilling or unable to remove the FARC from their territory (Gottwald 527). In a similar vein, this is part of a larger securitization of the refugee discourse and a militarization of the Ecuadorean-Colombian border as a result of the armed conflict that is part of a much larger pattern of trying to control the movement of drugs, arms, and people. The previous Ecuadorean  president Lucio Gutierrez and the former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe Vélez, in an effort to curb illicit movements of people, arms, drugs, and insurgents, required a Paso Juridico, or a criminal record check at the border so that known ‘criminals’ would not be able to cross the border Riaño and Villa 62).

This discourse is motivated by a dual-interest in demonizing Colombian refugees. Firstly, already impoverished Colombian refugees are willing to work at lower wages than low-income Ecuadoreans when they arrive, causing resentment amongst locals (Korovkin 326). Furthermore, given the presence of the FARC and the somewhat lawlessness, despite militarization, of the Colombian-Ecuadorean border and of Ecuadorean communities along the border, violent crime such as murder has apparently skyrocketed in these communities (Gottwald 536, Korovkin 328). Many Colombian refugees have a well-founded fear that they will continue to be persecuted once in Ecuador, and that if they apply for asylum in Ecuador and are rejected, they will be deported back to Colombia (Korovkin 328). This coupled with a fear that many refugees do not want to be ‘traced’, and therefore do not want to document their movements into Ecuador, creates a high degree of under-registration, or what Gottwald calls “invisibility” of Colombian refugees (Gottwald 535); for example the Ecuadorean Minister for Foreign Affairs suggested that whereas official numbers of Colombians in Ecuador are around 50,000 (not all refugees, it must be mentioned), he estimates that the actual number maybe 10 times that, and perhaps even 1 million (Korovkin 325). Many Colombians also once upon arriving at Ecuador, do not have proper documentation or do not come into contact with authorities (given that they are coming from remote areas and through what is a jungle border), and therefore never have the opportunity to formally apply for asylum. So, increasing violence, a perception that Colombians are bringing with them their social problems (drug trafficking, the FARC), and abusing of Ecuador’s “generous” refugee system as well as living outside of it, has bred resentment among the local population in Ecuador who does not have direct family ties to Colombia. Indeed, in one survey, 52% of Colombian refugees in Ecuador felt that they had experienced discrimination based on their immigration status (or lack thereof) or there Colombian nationality (White 6).

The Canadian context is not much different in that a negative perception of refugees, that refugees are an issue to be ‘dealt with’ and not human beings entitled to certain rights and protection from the state as asylum claimants, drives immigration policy. In particular to Colombia, although not occupying a large space in the Canadian popular imagination, this nation has been one of the top 10 source countries for refugees for over a decade and has been in the top 5 lamentably since 2005 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada A). In 2006 for example, as a source country for refugees to Canada, Colombia was only second to Afghanistan (Citizenship and Immigration Canada c). Between 1995 and 2005, over half of all Colombians coming to Canada were refugees (Riaño and Villa 279). Interestingly as well, 90% of the Colombian refugees that are part of the Canadian government-assisted resettlement program are people who needed a Third Country after not being able to find adequate safety in Ecuador (White 8). Canada’s refugee program in Colombia, in which one can apply for government-assisted resettlement and asylum from within Colombia is the only program of its kind left in the country (Rico-Martinez 2011). Therefore, Canada and Colombia in regards to asylum policy are symbiotically significant to each other in that one represents a large part of its international humanitarian commitment to asylum seekers, and the other is one of the few viable options for escaping extremely high levels of brutal political and criminal violence.

Nevertheless, Colombia, although in real terms still a large ‘producer’ of refugees is slowly losing priority in terms of representation of ‘legitimate’ needs in Ottawa. In an interview with the Political Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, delegates from the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) recount how the Canadian government is taking at face value many claims about security which are part of the official government discourse in Colombia (Rico-Martinez 2011). These points are that in urban areas, particularly the capital, security has greatly improved and the armed conflict is almost non-existent. Other points are that that the Marxist insurgency no longer has a national reach and has been pushed back by an American-supported counterinsurgency of former President Uribe to marginal areas (such as those bordering Ecuador, which still produce regional displacement). And the final narrative which has been accepted is that the demobilization of the paramilitary groups which executed the counterinsurgency in a not-so-covert alliance with the Colombian military was successful, eliminating the threat from the ‘paras’ as well (Rico-Martinez 2011). In other words, options for Colombians fearing armed political violence are to move to the illusion safety of urbanity such as Bogotá, and that the paramilitaries and guerrillas, the main actors in the conflict, are no longer a ‘problem’. However, there is a perception among displaced Colombians, not ridiculous, that the Canadian embassy will share intelligence with the DAS (the Colombian intelligence agency) who has files on 28 million Colombians-the Army in Colombia is also one of the largest perpetrators of abuses, historically working with paramilitary groups to persecute  ‘subversives’ who could possibly be guerrilla sympathizers (Rico-Martinez 2011). Despite this context of extreme vulnerability for many Colombians, Canada has opted to get rid of the ‘Source Country’ class for asylum claimants, even citing Colombia as having low acceptance rates (less than 10%) and a reason for the class’s irrelevance (Citizenship and Immigration Canada b). Therefore, the fact that the Canadian and American governments are on extremely good terms with the current Colombian leadership who is forwarding a narrative that Colombia’s counterinsurgency has brought relative security to the country is perhaps effecting  the framing, if not the implementation of asylum policy towards Colombia.

In the more general context, almost identical to Ecuador, Canadian asylum policy is being forwarded by crises/migrations which happen to the host country, and an official discourse which frames refugees as a ‘problem’. Canadian policy has been arguably influenced, if not driven, by the arrival of Tamil asylum claimants on boats in 2009 (Bradimore and Bauder). Given an exoticization of these ‘boat-people’ in the media, and the discourse around them which used a language of security, and not humanitarian necessity or rights, the asylum claimants were framed in the popular imagination of Canadians as being potentially a security threat at worst, or at best economic migrants who were ‘abusing’ Canada’s ‘generous’ refugee system. This later evoked an essentialized image of the “bogus” refugee who threatened either Canada’s physical security which has much political currency in a post-9/11 world, or who’s place in Canada was illegitimate as the ‘bogus’ refugee is trying to ‘jump the queue’ past ‘legitmate’ immigrants and giving a bad name to ‘legitimate’ refugees. This was the narrative employed by  the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, to justify the restrictionist changes to Canadian asylum policy under the auspices of Bill C-31, the ‘Protecting the Canadian Immigration System Act’ (MacIntosh 2012, Labman 57). Logically, this is somewhat contradictory as the immigration system and the asylum system, although both under Kenney’s mandate, are different. One is about Canadian interests, and the other, although clearly political and subject to the political interests of the governing party, should be about Canada’s humanitarian commitment to the Geneva Convention.

Ironically, Bill C-31 is actually much like Ecuador’s Presidential Decree 1182; the time for filing an asylum claim is reduced to 15 days; Canadian asylum applicants, many fleeing traumatic and chaotic situations in which documenting abuse is difficult, or dealing with literacy and language issues, must find proper documentation for their claim within 30 days. Other similarities with the Ecuadorean changes include a more stringent criteria of appeals (the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment period is shortened) (Canadian Council for Refugees). Also, in direct contravention to the Refugee Convention and further reinforcing the ‘refugees are security threats/criminals’ narrative is the fact that if the Minister of Public Safety deems that a refugees arrival is “irregular” (such as the boat incidents with the Sri Lankan migrants), the migrants can be detained.

Kenney’s extremely problematic discourse is politically useful. By framing refugees as a burden on a generous system, as having dubious legitimacy on whether or not to be in Canada and enjoy services while they await a decision on their claim, it becomes less politically costly to ‘deal’ with refugees in ways that are convenient for Canada (detaining them, deporting them, not paying for their healthcare temporarily) but violate the rights of an extremely vulnerable population who has few to no options to keep the government they are dependent on accountable. This discourse essentially absolves the Canadian government of its humanitarian duties and presents it instead as responsible, prudent, and looking out for the best interest of Canada when it violates the rights of refugees.

Colombians, although not having a particularly significant purchase on the Canadian perception of refugees in general, unfortunately fit well into this narrative as Colombia is generally constructed within popular imaginaries as a suspicious place of chaos which exports drugs, refugees, violence, and other social problems. Therefore, the Canadian government, through Jason Kenney and evidenced by the words of representatives of the Embassy sets up two contradictory narratives which are both at the service of a restrictionist immigration policy. One is that, potentially, many asylum claimants to Canada are so-called ‘bogus refugees’ who are really ‘just’ economic migrants or (in the case of Colombia) drug traffickers or FARC terrorists; the other is that the situation in Colombia has improved to a point where, although things may be bad, Colombia no longer needs to be a ‘Source Country of Origin’ and is perhaps even an example of why that entire special class of countries with respect to asylum policy is no longer relevant.

Minister Jason Kenney

It is difficult to prioritize one policy over the other, as both are extremely similar in their origins, interests, supporting narratives (refugees/Colombians are dangerous or freeloaders), and outcomes (restrictionism). However, purely in technical terms, Canada’s refugee system is somewhat, perhaps even negligibly, better than Ecuador’s.  Canada’s system still has a more equitable appeal system than Ecuador’s, which only allows for a few days for gathering appeals. Additionally, although the contexts are very different (Canada largely receives Colombians at ports of entry, most Colombians are ‘invisible’ to the Ecuadorean state), Canada does have a less chaotic, and more rights-guaranteeing asylum system then Ecuador, although this system is slowly being eroded. Ironically though, Ecuador has much more to win from restrictionism than Canada, and Colombians have much more to lose. As a frontier zone bordering guerrilla strongholds, Ecuador is a first-stop for Colombians fleeing coca fumigation, forced displacement, massacres, sexual violence, and many other kinds of depredations by armed actors. Canada, although economically and socially a much more attractive option than Ecuador , is not a viable choice for many refugees given the waning concern on the part of Ottawa for the humanitarian situation in Colombia  and the geographic distance. Nevertheless given the uncontrolled influx of an unknown number of refugees into what are already poor communities in Ecuador, Ecuadoreans bear the brunt of the refugee crisis in the Americas. A restrictionist policy, and popular support for it, are more politically viable in Ecuador. The millions of dollars that Canada in the long-run will ‘save’ on its humanitarian commitment (something that perhaps should not be the first place to look for budget cuts), are relatively insignificant, given what Canada spends on asylum. However, given the construction of refugees as an issue, and the hypervisibilization of ‘suspicious’ appearing refugees given the two boat incidents off the coast of British Columbia, politically, there is much to gain for the Canadian government from adopting restrictionist measures, although not necessarily the host society like Ecuador would.

This disturbing pattern of restrictionist asylum policies, against the spirit and even sometimes the letter of the 1951 Convention, closes a literal humanitarian space of potential safety for the millions of Colombians who have been, and continue to be, victimized by violence. Colombians will no longer just have a hard time finding refuge in Canada and Ecuador (two of the few countries who ever received many Colombians in the first place), but if they arrive there their situations will be more precarious, with less support from the state and a greater likelihood to be deported back to the civil war they fled.

The architects and executors of both Ecuadorean and Canadian immigration policy need to critically reflect on whose interests they are actually advancing by restricting the possibilities for Colombian asylum seekers. Ecuador needs to get rid of Decree 1182, and most urgently, needs to recognize refugees using the Cartagena Declaration definition, and not just the 1951 definition; ‘formalizing’ the tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Colombian forced migrants living in the shadows in Ecuador needs to a process of humanitarian inclusion, and not convenient exclusion. In both Canada and Ecuador, asylum claimants should be given more time and resources to make their asylum claims, and there needs to be less of an emphasis on receiving forced migrants and their claims on the terms of government bureaucracies (an emphasis on documentation) and more on the migrants needs (for example, in Colombia some of the most affected by displacement fleeing to Ecuador are indigenous people who often may not have a working knowledge of Spanish, let alone French or English, to say nothing of being able to document the anarchic and traumatic nature of events like displacement). Canada needs to stop detaining refugees and understand that to arbitrarily deem some arrivals as “irregular” is problematic. Forced migration is an experience of literal and figurative displacement in which one’s place in the world is traumatically ruptured and survival is the key focus; there is little that is typically ‘regular’ about this for thousands of Colombians.

Most importantly however, given that both Ecuador and Canada are democracies in which public opinion (or what leaders perceive it to be, or help to make) heavily influences policy. In both countries, restrictionist immigration policy that would be otherwise controversial is supported if not driven by narratives and perceptions of (Colombian) refugees as being suspect, dangerous, and freeloading. The best thing that Canada and Ecuador can do for Colombian refugees is to hand them the microphone and let their respective publics understand them and the complexities of forced migrations on the Colombians’ own terms, and not on those of the governments who would rather protect themselves from them.

References

Appelbaum, Adina. “Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador: Reflections from World Refugee Day.”

Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador: Reflections from World Refugee Day. Georgetown

Public Policy Review, 26 June 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

<http://gppreview.com/2012/06/26/challenges-to-refugee-

protection-in-ecuador-reflections-from-world-refugee-day/>.

Canadian Council for Refugees. “Concerns about Changes to the Refugee Determination System.”

 

Concerns about Changes to the Refugee Determination System. Canadian Council for Refugees,

Dec. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. <http://ccrweb.ca/en/concerns-changes-refugee-determination-

system>.

a.Citizenship and Immigration Canada. “Canada – Total Entries of Refugee Claimants by Top Source

Countries.” Facts and Figures 2010 – Immigration Overview: Permanent and Temporary

 

Residents. Government of Canada, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2010/temporary/25.asp&gt;.

b.Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Media Relations. News Release — Government to Refocus

 

Resettlement Efforts. News Release — Government to Refocus Resettlement Efforts. Citizenship

and Immigration Canada, 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/releases/2011/2011-03-18c.asp&gt;.

c. Citizenship and Immigraiton Canada. “Backgrounder – Refugees and Canada’s Refugee System.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. Government of Canada 20 June

2007. Web. 01 Apr. 2013.

<http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/media/backgrounders/2007/2007-06-20.asp&gt;.

Gottwald, Martin. “Protecting Colombian Refugees in the Andean Region: The Fight Against Invisibility.”

International Journal of Refugee Law 16.4 (2004): 517-46. Print.

IDMC. “Country Page: Colombia.” Country Page: Colombia. International Displacement Monitoring

Centre (IDMC), Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.internal-

displacement.org/countries/colombia>.

Korovkin, Tanya. “The Colombian War and “Invisible” Refugees in Ecuador.” Peace Review: A Journal of

 

Social Justice 20.3 (2008): 321-29. Taylor & Francis. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10402650802330154&gt;.

Labman, Shauna. “Queue the Rhetoric: Refugees, Resettlement and Reform.” University of New

 

Brunswick Law Journal 62 (2011): 55. LexisNexis. Web. 1 April 2013.

http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi=366868&sr=HLEAD%28Queue+the+rhetoric%29+and+date+is+2011

Littell, Nicole. “Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Ecuador.” The Human Rights Brief. Center

for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

<http://hrbrief.org/2012/11/situation-of-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-in-ecuador/&gt;.

MacIntosh, Constance. “Insecure Refugees: The Narrowing of Asylum-Seeker Rights to Freedom of

Movement and Claims Determination Post 9/11 in Canada.” Review of Constitutional Studies

16.2 (2012): 181. Web. Hein Online

http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/revicos16&div=14&g_sent=1&collection=journals

Riaño, Pilar, and Marta Ines Villa, eds. Poniendo Tierra De Por Medio: Migración Forzada De

Colombianos En Colombia, Ecuador Y Canadá (Putting Land in Between: Forced Migration of

Colombians in Colombia, Ecuador, and Canada). Medellín: Corporación Region, 2008. Print.

Rico Martinez, Francisco. The Future of Colombian Refugees in Canada – Are We Being Equitable? Rep.

N.p.: Canadian Council for Refugees, 2011. Print.

White, Anna G. “In the shows of refugees: Providing Protection and Solutions for Displaced

Colombians in Ecuador”. News Issues In Refugee Research. Research Paper No. 217. UNHCR.

Policy Development and Evaluation Service. Web. Accessed March 29 2013. http://www.unhcr.org/4e4bd6c19.html

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War is Development by Other Means: What the latest displacement numbers aren’t telling you

“If the war is a continuation of economics by other means…[then] in Colombia, arms, independent of who wields them, serve the promotion of a social logic of development…” –  Carlos Rosero

This week Colombia was back in the headlines, as a fact that was known nationally for a while now finally made it into the Anglophone mainstream. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre gave the South American nation the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, at 5.5 million in its annual report in displacement. Another notable is clearly Syria, who has the fastest growing population of uprooted people, 3 million of the nations 22 million people, and the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which also displaced 2.4 million after an increase in violence last year that continues today.

The 5.5 million number comes from one of Colombia’s most respected national NGOs, The Consultory for Human Rights and Displacement known by its Spanish acronym CODHES. For decades, the government has claimed that the displaced population in Colombia figures between 3.5-4.9 million, and CODHES has claimed that this number is a gross underestimate, often citing the IDP population at 5.4 million since 2011. Nevertheless, the UNHCR and the Colombian government have slowly started to recognize the value of CODHES methodology, and in so doing their estimates of the IDP population have consequently increased.

These numbers speak volumes to the fact that forced displacement in Colombia, as one of the main forms of violence used by armed actors (and, to a certain extent, one of the few survival strategies of communities) is central to the Colombian conflict and cannot be seen as a consequence/collateral damage of a political issue (the war) but a political, social, and humanitarian issue in and of itself. The numbers also evidence the centrality of controlling territory to the strategies of armed actors (more on that below).

In their annual report, which has been picked up by some media, ‘Columbia’ receives a scant 6 pages despite having the largest population. However, IDMC does recognize challenges with the Victim’s Law (which is trying to provide land restitution to IDPs), and that 230,000 people were displaced last year/although far  from its peak of millions a decade ago, displacement continues to be a very real and present issue.

There is quite a lot that the numbers and supposedly expert analysis from the IDMC and the Norwegian Refugee Council aren’t telling you though.

Firstly, the numbers are somewhat meaningless in an international sense. There is no point in having a sensational “Displacement Olympics” in which Colombia is the gold medal winner and Syria is a rising contender. Although the country’s international image which in terms of security is largely constructed around drug trafficking and kidnapping makes displacement an invisible crisis, comparisons are a bit dangerous. For many years, Colombia was cited as having “the world’s 3rd largest” IDP population after Sudan and Iraq, and then the second only after Sudan, and now Colombia is the undisputed champion. In the early 2000s, when violence was at its height, being the nth country on the list in comparison to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan would have been cold comfort to the millions of people who were violently being uprooted every year from their homes.

Any displacement is too much displacement and we have to think about the way we talk about nations in the Global South. If ‘just’ 50,000 were displaced by war next year in Canada, that would give a lot of people pause. Why are millions of displaced in countries/regions associated with war seen as somehow natural or different?

Secondly, the oft-cited 3.5, 3.9, 4.5, 5.4, and now 5.5 million figures when it comes to displacement in Colombia actually only begin counting from 1985 to the present day. This manifestation of war began in 1964. Therefore, there are literally 20 years of war whose effects on displacement we really don’t know about.

Thirdly, Colombia’s large (and sensationally constructed) displaced population often obscures the fact that between 500,00-1 million Colombians left the country as refugees mostly to Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, the US, and Canada. If you count these, the number of people who have left their homes due to violence in Colombia is closer to 6.5 million.

Fourth, there is a much larger point about how we conceptualize and consequently prioritize certain kinds of violence. Countless not only Colombians, but Latin Americans, Africans, and many others are currently being displaced by the development of large extractive/mining projects and mega-infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the large amount of violence currently occurring in Mexico and Central America which has displaced thousands is considered criminal, and not political/not related to war. The neo-paramilitary groups, known by the Colombian government as “BACRIM”/criminal bands, are (in my view incorrectly) being framed as criminal actors, and not stakeholders in the political and social armed conflict, and therefore their victims are not entitled to the same reparations which people dispalced by the FARC-EP, ELN, or the Army are.  For example, all actors in Colombia’s conflict are involved, in different ways and proportions, to drug trafficking and mining.

So we have to ask ourselves, why are we being so narrow as to focus on “displacement caused by war”, as if we can define when political violence ends, and criminal and economic violence begins, and as if one is more pressing than another. Therefore, the numbers presented by IDMC represent only a very particular type, and fraction, of the general problem of powerful actors creating insecurity and fear leading to forced migration. Although they nod to the displacement created by these neo-paramilitary groups with an ambiguous political status, the media has framed these as displacements due to traditional understandings of what constitutes war or political violence.

IDMC’s analysis also features the gendered, racialized, classist, and anti-peasant dimensions of forced displacement. Displacement in Colombia disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians and  indigenous peoples (who live in rural areas, typically rich in resources and coveted by armed groups), people who are lower-class (94% of IDPs are poor, although many are impoverished due to displacement), people who are peasants or live in rural areas (although intra-urban displacement is becoming a growing phenomenon). Displaced people are disproportionately single women with children.

However, the report does not mention how many indigenous people are displaced to other indigenous communities, or in areas so remote, that their experiences are often not captured by official records. Moreover, the report, although recognizing that forced migration effects indigenous and Afro-Colombians in particularly, it does not mention the unique relationships of these groups’ respective identity to the territory in the rural context and how displacement from the rural land to the city is often also a process of cultural and social alienation, exacerbating the sense of loss in terms of identity, territory, autonomy, and culture. Furthermore, many Afro-Colombian intellectuals and activists have considered displacement not as a part of war, but as another manifestation of the violence of colonialism which displaced them from Africa, enslaved them in the Americas, and is now again displacing them for their territory in Colombia.

The number also isn’t telling you about how individuals who we have dehumanized under the decontextualizing, technical, and sanitized label of “internally displaced person” or “IDP” (desplazado in Colombia) are subjects with agencies and individual stories. Many Colombians have never been displaced. Many more have been displaced multiple times in their lives. For many, the word “IDP” or “displaced” leads to a stigma of being not only a victim, but associated with the war. In Colombia there is the very ugly prejudice that if someone was displaced, “it must have not been for no reason”. Many communities and people who are displaced, like all of us, have strong ties to their neighbours, friends, territory and social world in which they inhabited, all which are violently unmade by  displacement. Forced migration has to be understood as a very human process of displacement in which one’s social relationship  to geographic space and others is traumatically broken.

But the label is also dehumanizing in that it only sees the displaced person as an object to be effected by armed groups, an obstacle in the crossfire. Nevertheless, people in Colombia (and elsewhere) are subjects and many of them after being displaced actively advocate for their rights and demand justice. However, the demand for restitution of land by survivor’s groups coupled with the Colombian state’s denial of the continuation of paramilitarism has resulted in leaders and representatives of displaced communities being among the primary targets for selected assassination and threats by armed groups. Again, displacement is therefore an issue central, and not collateral, to violence. The IDMC report does mention that in 2004, the Constitutional Court considered the murder of these advocates to be ‘crimes against humanity’.

The final, and in my view, most important thing that forced displacement is about how the Colombian conflict is intimately tied to, some would even say caused, by a need to control land and the political and economic opportunity which it represents.

The report cites “internal armed conflict” and “criminal violence” as causing displacement, as if these do not intertwine and as if these exist in a vacuum isolated from the social world of politics, economic development, the interests of the plutocracy, social movements, and other factors.

Although forced displacement due to armed conflict becomes hypervisible to us in the West and Global North given its humanitarian (and sensational) nature, the root causes of much of this violence becomes invisible because it enables our economic development. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) invests in mining companies who are allied with neo-paramilitary groups who displace. Therefore, displacement is not a side-effect of a war which we seldom understand and only see glimpses of through our television screen in Canada, but it is actually necessary for our way of life.

As Colombian-American Anthropologist Arturo Escobar says, displacement is constitutive of capitalist economic development. More land is perpetually needed to fuel growth, and the people living on that land are an obstacle to that development if they are not aligned with it. It bears mentioning here that one of the “economic engines” of President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan is mining, which has been very much tied to paramilitary displacement. Multinational corporations in the form of mining and agribusiness, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers, all have a vested stake in having the Colombian land without the people on it.

Many rural displacements, which occur in ‘The Other Colombia’ where a lack of state presence led to the incursion of the insurgency, and then the counterinsurgency, are in areas where the state has only recently appeared, and now sees the riches which the land offer for ‘development’. Livelihoods and ways of being which are counter to the nation-building economic project, which perhaps benefits more Urban Colombia than Rural Colombia, such as fishing, subsistence agriculture, artisanal mining, are displaced to make way for large-scale mega-projects that fit within the logic and supposed rationality of extractive capitalism. Displacement needs to occur to let the nation-state develop since Colombia for a long time was an unconsolidated state; displacement is the violent resolution of the tension created by the different social philosophies of Urban Colombia and Rural Colombia.

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