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Update No. 99/01 on ICRC activities in Colombia on behalf of internally displaced people

13-07-1999 Operational Update

 Internally displaced people have a right to integrated assistance. This includes protection, emergency aid and longer-term socio-economic stabilization measures. (ICRC Emergency Appeals 1999, pp. 135-137)  

Despite initiatives taken by the new Government to resume formal talks with insurgent groups since its election in mid-1998, little has actually happened to alleviate the level of internal violence in Colombia. Whilst ways have ostensibly been sought to take the peace process forward, combat between the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the armed forces has, if anything, intensified. " Self-defence " groups continue to develop their operations, not only in coastal areas and the north but also in central and southern parts of the country. Incidents of political violence in the form of assassinations, hostage-taking, threats and massacres have also increased in frequency. Actual fighting, as well as the climate of insecurity and fear, has prompted tens of thousands of people to leave their homes, either as individuals or as part of a community group. Destinations might be neighbouring villages, cities or bordering countries (notably Panama and Venezuela). The phenomenon is growing and presents the Government and international community with a serious humanitarian problem.

During armed conflicts the civilian population is entitled under international humanitarian law to be shielded from the effects of war as much as possible -- this includes creating the right conditions to help them stay safely in the place they live. As such, the ICRC's overriding objective is to create the conditions necessary for civilians to be able to remain in their homes wherever possible, in safety and dignity. Prevention is therefore a major aspect of its work. However, the magnitude of population displacements is evidence of how difficult it is to prevent the arbitrary treatment of civilians and the excesses committed against them. The reality is such that population movements still occur, leaving thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) dispossessed, with no access to land or means of income. Hence the need to provide an emergency response.

In addition to the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross Society, numerous organizations (state, non-governmental, international, national and local) are committed to responding to the day-to-day needs of IDPs throughout the country. They include the major UN and regional agencies, the international financial institutions, various NGOs and the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, and in spite of all the best efforts of a variety of players over the years, the response remains unsatisfactory; there is a growing number of IDPs, and their ability to become self-sufficient is increasingly uncertain.

Whilst continuing to provide emergency aid for those not catered for by other organizations, the ICRC has also identified the need to adapt its relief programmes to avoid creating dependence. By combining its efforts with those of the local authorities, NGOs and UN agencies, the ICRC hopes to help offer a longer-term response.

New sub-delegations and offices were opened during 1998 (bringing the total to 12), allowing the ICRC better and more effective coverage of zones affected by the internal conflict. The presence of ICRC delegates in the field often represents a unique and impartial source of moral support for victims of the violence - be they displaced or not - and for their families.

 ICRC relief programme  

Red Cross assistance for IDPs currently consists of subsidiary emergency aid for up to three months following initial displacement, until such a time as the relevant national authorities can step in. By focusing on the emergency phase, the programme theoretically sets out clear time limits in terms of both initiation of assistance (that is, it has to be requested in the period immediately following displacement) and duration (this type of support does not provide for rehabilitation or development). However, the complexity of the situation often leads the ICRC to extend its assistance beyond the emergency period. Where assistance from governmental or non-governmental institutions is not forthcoming, ICRC assistance might be the only option for many displaced individuals or communities. Articles distributed include food and hygiene kits, food utensils, bedding and clothing. In certain situations, the ICRC may cover the cost of medical consultation and medicines.


In the case of mass population displacements in rural areas (i.e. groups of more than ten families, or more than 50 people), assistance is provided in coordination with the Colombian Red Cross following an evaluation of the economic situation of the people concerned. In other instances, the ICRC might be approached directly by individuals or smaller groups seeking assistance. This usually occurs in cities. Such people are interviewed in order to verify that they meet the criteria for assistance -- that they have been displaced by the internal violence and have not been in the city for longer than three months.

It is estimated that some 170,000 IDPs, returnees and vulnerable resident civilians in conflict zones will benefit from ICRC emergency assistance in 1999. During the first three months of the year, 23,000 people who formed part of mass population displacements were assiste d and 105,000 food parcels distributed.

 Formulating a response for the future  

Given the nature and extent of the IDP problem in Colombia, there is no doubt that the type of humanitarian assistance provided by the ICRC continues to be relevant. By design and definition though, it remains " just " that; an emergency response. In a recent study, the ICRC examined local, national and international responses to the IDP problem in more detail in order to highlight weak points and suggest alternative courses of action where necessary. Both rural and urban areas with a high concentration of displaced people (Uruba, Southern Bolivar, Tolima and Bogota) were surveyed in order to analyze the situation and needs of both long-term and temporarily displaced families. State authorities, international and national NGOs all formed part of the consultation process. The ICRC is developing/modifying its current approach on the basis of the findings.

 Economic security  

Both rural and urban contexts leave humanitarian players with a dilemma since the very same programmes which are necessary for day-to-day survival, if not properly defined or adequately developed, could end up exacerbating the problem in the longer-term. Recent surveys point to the fact that it is becoming increasingly urgent to progressively but concretely reduce systematic food aid whilst planning productive transitional assistance. 

In rural areas , where conflict or harassment makes access to land difficult, food production, whether it be for self-sufficiency or income generation, is problematic. Even so, some measures can be taken to address the issue of food and economic insecurity in order to restore agricultural food production capacity. On the basis of recent findings, current policy will be redefined and reoriented over the next six months. Part of the new approach will include:

- reassessing the suitability of certain foods included in current distributions and, if necessary, replacing them with more appropriate goods;

- continuing to distribute food parcels, but only until IDPs have access to their own harvests (for consumption or sale), have access to animal proteins such as fish and milk, and/or are able to purchase food on the local market;

- carefully coordinating with other agencies to ensure that there is no duplication of emergency relief and continue training of national staff.

It is hoped that this approach might make at least some contribution to discouraging migrations to urban areas. Here too, the ICRC only currently provides temporary support. Given the scale of the displacement in urban areas and the widespread economic deprivation of many non-displaced urban citizens living in the same suburbs, the ICRC cannot begin to tackle the underlying problems stemming from urban unemployment, high crime rates and inadequate infrastructures such as housing, sewage, water treatment, health and education. In these areas, whilst monitoring the situation of the long-term displaced, the ICRC will therefore focus on the needs of the recently displaced by:

- revising the contents of food parcels to include more appropriate items which would both cover nutritional needs and represent actual savings for those concerned;

- increasing the number of expatriates and training national (including Colombian Red Cross) staff, in order to consolidate the assistance strategy;

- further developing links with local networks (local authorities, NGOs, UN agencies etc.) in order to better coordinate a concerted respon se that would address longer-term needs.

 A reminder of other ICRC activities in Colombia...  

For civilians

- bringing allegations of violations of humanitarian law against civilians to the attention of bearers of weapons;

- making strong representations to all guerrilla fronts and autodefensas in an effort to put an end to the practice of kidnapping;

- ensuring respect for the fundamental rights of hostages in terms of guarantees of safety, humane treatment, medical supervision and correspondence with family members via Red Cross messages;

- ensuring that mobile health teams provide medical care on a monthly basis in some areas (including the Riosucio region of Chocó department in Urabá, and along the Caguán river in Caquetá) where fighting prevents access to facilities, through projects delegated to the German and Norwegian National Societies, and in cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross and, hopefully, by setting up similar projects in southern Bolivar and on the Putamayo river with the Canadian and Swedish Red Cross Societies;

- with the Colombian Red Cross, developing a Red Cross response to the phenomena of urban violence.

For people deprived of their freedom

- regularly visiting those detained in connection with the conflict by the security forces or the Ministry of Justice and submitting reports on findings and recomm endations to the authorities;

- providing security detainees'families with bus tickets so that they can regularly visit their detained relative.

With the authorities

- establishing and maintaining contact with the new administrative authorities, explaining the ICRC's mandate, its specific role in Colombia and the basic tenets of humanitarian law, with a view to encouraging the integration of humanitarian law in national law.

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