“Why are you leaving Colombia?” Someone asked me thisat the airport of Bogotá just before taking the plane to the United States. It took me a few moments to come up with an honest answer that would sufficiently express the reasons why I was leaving my beloved country. I replied to the question after some hesitation and followed up with an assurance that I will definitely be returning in a couple of months. Nevertheless, I thought about that simple but deep question during most of the long hours of my flight.
Over the last several decades, immigration to Colombia has been decidedly low in comparison with other Latin American countries. This can be attributed to a number of factors, the majority of which relate to the violent internal conflict and social struggles prevalent in the nation. The same can be said to explain the markedly higher rates of emigration. It is for this reason that I will focus on the issues surrounding emigration, as it has been one of the biggest problems in my country for many years.
In Colombia, as in many other countries, there are two types of migration: voluntary and forced. According to the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), which is the governmental agency in charge of migration control, it was between 1996 and 2003 that almost 1.6 million Colombians left the country voluntarily, primarily as a result of the internal social conflict. As stated by Myriam Bérubé in her article Colombia: In the Crossfire, “there were about 770,000 Colombians officially registered in consulates worldwide in 2003, but it is estimated that as many as 4.2 million Colombians live abroad.” The United States, Venezuela, Spain, and Ecuador are some countries that have received the most Colombians in the last decades.
On the other hand, when we talk about forced migration we should make reference to the term Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which is defined as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border,” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction, paragraph two). Let us remember that Colombia has one of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, which began in 1964 and has resulted in innumerable casualties along the years. Forced migration is one of the main consequences of this conflict and the amount of internally displaced persons that have to migrate to the main cities as result of the violence is very high. These displacements make people vulnerable and significantly reduce the quality of life of those who have fled their rural homes, leaving all property, roots, and often family behind.
While most of those that leave the country voluntarily – in many cases to escape violence or other life threatening situations – can afford to begin a new life in a different country, those who are internally displaced do not have enough economic resources that allow them to have the same life standards they used to have in their rural homes. The governmental aids are almost non-existent; the vast amount of corruption, administrative deficiencies and flaws in the current laws, in conjunction with other things, are some of the reasons why the IDPs do not receive the support they need. As I already mentioned, they are unreasonably vulnerable and at the end of the day this situation primarily provokes poverty, hunger and crime.
Finally, I would like to point out that although the amount of people who intentionally leave the country is rather high, and despite the fact that they have to face difficult situations as Colombian migrants, the dilemmas of those who are forced to displace to the big cities are exceedingly complicated. In the same line of thought, I would prefer to change the question with which I titled this paper for a more appropriate inquiry. Why are Colombians forced to leave their hometowns? What will happen to them? Despite the reduction in newly displaced persons over the last few years, and with many of the displaced managing to return to their hometowns and retaking part of their lives, their situation in general is still intricate and the efforts to help them to confront their difficult reality are proving inadequate.
Check the following link and you will find a trailer for The Colors of the Mountains, a Colombian drama film that highlights the problem of forced displacement from a child’s perspective: