Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Displacement - the Unseen Tragedy

Colombia is not the world leader in many things. But the country may now be the world's no. 1 in something very  tragic - human displacement.

The phenomenon of desplazados has been a chronic problem in Colombia, as outlaw guerrillas and paramilitaries - and sometimes even the military itself - have forced peasants and townspeople to abandon their homes and farms. Often, the victims' only alternative is death.

After five years living in Colombia, much of that time working as a journalist, I've heard dozens of horrific stories of displaced people. In many cases, their family members were murdered by outlaw groups, their children or husband forced to become guerrilla or paramilitary fighters, and their land and livestock stolen by the outlaw groups.

Traditionally, Colombia has been considered to have the world's second- or third-largest number of displaced people, behind countries such as the Sudan, the Congo and Iraq. But a report the other day by a United Nations official in Ecuador says that Colombia with some 3.7 million displaced people (in addition to 350,000 refugees, most of them in Ecuador) has the world's largest refugee population.

The Colombian government denies this.

It's not easy to measure, since Colombia's is a long-running, relatively low-level conflict, and the displaced people slowly reintegrate themselves into society, making them a fluid, rolling population. But whether Colombia is number one or not is really just a technicality. The fact that Colombia has millions of displaced people is a tragedy from every perspective. And for the displaced themselves, the numbers and Colombia's ranking don't really matter.

What really matters is for these outlaw groups to stop terrorizing Colombia's humblest people, and for the government to quit debating numbers and do more to try to address this tragedy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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