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From the “suffering stranger” to the IDP The emergence of a new problem area

Juan Ricardo Aparicio

During the mid-1990s in Bogotá, Colombia, I, like many of the inhabitants of the city, noticed numerous people, standing on street corners and asking for money from passersby. Some were Afro-Colombians, others indigenous people coming from rural areas of the country. As in many major cities of Third World countries, the image of individuals alone or sometimes accompanied by their entire families standing in the streets asking for money is a common scene. But these people were not only asking for money; they were standing with poster signs and pasted photocopies of documents kept in paper folders, pleading for help. I soon learned that these were official certifications, photocopies of their documentation, letters written to the institutions demanding their rights in terms of education and housing in Bogotá, including the Carta de Salud (Health Card). These items were identifying them not just as poor people asking for help but also as “internally displaced persons”, or IDPs.

In this chapter I want to critically examine how this new category, the IDP, came into existence and what are the effects that this category has had for the processes of protecting, alleviating, and governing this particular population. I am very interested in both the production of a new positivity, consisting of both enunciation ns and visibilization of what the Brazilian anthropologist Joao Biehl names as zones for social abandonment. This is a biopolitical history, but for sure, it must be considered a “minimum biopolitics”, as Peter Redfield rightly argues when thinking about the minimum vital kits produced by Doctors without Borders (MSF, in the French acronym) during their different operations.

Even if IDPs do not cross international borders, they do traverse other type of borders that one needs to acknowledge, through Mezzadra y Neilson’s proposal of a border methodology and epistemology. In particular, these other borders are racial, economic, and social, but also, these are borders for capital accumulation. More importantly, they are borders that determine the type of responses that different caring communities and institutions, both from the secular and non-secular worlds, undertake to protect, historically and globally, these suffering individuals. These actions constitute philosophical and pragmatic responses to the question of what is to be a human being in the contemporary world, in the sense of what are the techniques, procedures, knowledge, and practices meeded to alleviate the suffering of the IDPs.

Following Rabinow, I want to antliropologize the configuration of knowledge that made the category possible in the 1990s as a new problem area worldwide, “by showing how exotic its constitution of reality has been: emphasize those domains most taken for granted as universal; make them seem as historically peculiar as possible”; and, finally, to “show how their claims to truth are linked to social practices and have hence become effective forces in the social world” (Rabinow, 241). Indeed, some of the reasons why people fled to the cities during the 1990s had been present in the longer history of Colombia and in the world over. Other reasons emerged more recently in response to the violent contestation over certain territories by different actors who reacted to the extraction of legal and illegal resources, connected to global economies. But never before were people forced to move; they rather remained within their own country, being referred to as “internally displaced persons” (IDPs). What I do want to suggest, inspired by Foucault’s analysis of discursive formations, is that this specific object of study, the IDP, only came into existence within a specific worldwide configuration in the mid-1990s. That is the history I will briefly trace here.

Today, one of the most common and appalling ways in which the IDPs category has entered into the humanitarian world is through quantitative considerations and official statistics. The current statistical report from the United Nations High Commission of Refugees claims that there are 70.8 million displaced persons worldwide distributed in this way: 25.9 million refugees, 3.5 asylum seekers, and a remainder of 41.3 internally displaced persons.1 Just to recall that by 1998 Kofi Annan was talking of 20-25 million IDPs worldwide. In almost 20 years, the number of IDPs has doubled due to its increasing visibility, but also as a result of a myriad of factors such as natural disasters, climate change, internal armed conflicts, and drug wars. Since 2015, as the 2018 UNHCR report signals, Colombia has accumulated the larger proportion of IDPs worldwide with 7,816,500 since 1985. This was the year when the first reports of IDPs in Colombia started to emerge initially thanks to the Catholic Church (Aparicio, "Intervenciones etnográficas”). Indeed, these official numerical estimates emerge when IDPs are registered in national or international tolls. However, one of the most crucial philosophical, political, humanitarian, and social problems of registered cases emerges in the determination of when a person becomes an IDP. Also, even if they never cross international borders, it is still difficult to determine when they can be no longer considered an IDP, thus being expelled from this category.

A person becomes an IDP through certificates, interrogations, and proofs needed to be included into the national registers of IDPs, a process being handled by a humanitarian bureaucracy. One needs to remember, for instance, the whole debate during Katrina emergency in 2005 regarding the use of the term refugee or IDP, and what this meant for the US general public for the naturalization of poverty or the rejection of international attention towards a national problem (Masquelier).

Feldman has also studied the difficult distinctions put in place by one of the most controversial and unacknowledged displaced persons, the Palestinian refugees, a fleeting population inside and outside international borders. Thus, next to the question of when does one enter into the category, is the question of when does the condition of internally displaced persons ceases to exist, and what they become. How are they healed? What does it mean to leave this category and enter a new one? Do they become a citizen, a nomad, a rogue? Although I am not discussing here these central dilemmas, I recognize that they are closely related to the many ways in which groups and persons that enter and exit the category of IDP survive in the outskirts of the city, under precarious conditions, managing to make a living on their own, without further assistance.

Ironically, approximately two years after the peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government concluded, the UNCHR reports - only for-registered cases for 2018 - 118,100 new internal displacements2 (El Espectador 2019). These new displacements are related to the confrontations and disputes for territories and resources, between different armed actors. Illegal mining and coca production, impacted by the power vacuum left by the FARC guerrilla, converted regions such as Catatumbo, Narino, Antioquia, and Chocó into disputed areas. Threats and assassinations of peasant leaders involved in processes of land restitution have also fueled recent processes of displacements. At the same time, there has been a death toll of 702 social leaders and 135 ex-guerilla members since January 2016 and May 2019 (El Espectador 2019). Thus, with all these figures coming from Colombia and other parts of the world, one meditates not only about the ultimate effectivity of categorizations for making sense of this humanitarian tragedy, but also, on the delusion, deprivation, and abandonment of these sectors.

In the first section of this chapter, I am inspired by the Foucauldian approach interested in the role of discursive regimes in the constitution and positioning of subjects and subjectivities. Here, I want to recognize the constitution of a new “visible” object of study (the IDP) that emerges simultaneously as an “articulation” of relations of knowledge, forms of government, subject positions, and particular practices of subjectification. In this brief section, I am particularly interested in tracing the conditions of possibility for the emergence of new “visibilities” and “articulations” (Deleuze). In the second part of this chapter, I want to assess some of the effects that this recognition has had in the Colombian society, for internally displaced persons. Obviously, there are no simple answers to these problems, and mainly due to ongoing epistemological and methodological debates. I want to analyze particular responses when the category of IDP is disputed, appropriated, and utilized by different sectors of society, in unpredictable ways. But also, I would like to analyze what happens when the same categoiy is resisted by movements of victims in the context of an organized rejection of the present humanitarian government in Colombia, while other forms of subjectifica-tion are being recreated and explored.

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