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Home arrow Sociology arrow Human rights and social justice in a global perspective : an introduction to international social work


The impact of a regional conflict is felt worldwide in our globalized world. Social workers in the United States work with refugees and asylum seekers and must be knowledgeable about the impact that conflict has had on their lives and the trauma they may have suffered. The impact will vary by where they are from and whether they are male or female, adult or child. We must be prepared to help them resolve their trauma so they can begin to reconstruct their lives.

Culture Box COLOMBiA

Although Colombia’s ongoing conflict does not receive much attention in the world press, Colombia has the world’s largest population of IDPs—approximately 3.9 million. This is almost double the number reported in the first edition of this book. Additionally, approximately 400,000 have fled to other nations (UNHCR, 20l3e). However, these are only the number of people who are officially registered and the actual number is likely much higher. The NGO Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento has recorded over 5 million displaced (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre [IDMC], 2011). These figures had been shrinking, but then reversed course sharply in 2011 (International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], 2012). Medecins Sans Frontieres (2006) notes that Colombians, when referring to displacement, do not use the phrase estar desplazado, which would indicate a temporary displacement. Instead, they use ser desplazado, which indicates a permanent state of being, for even those who are able to return home are permanently affected by the displacement.

The roots of the violence in Colombia are difficult to untangle and stem from a variety of sources, but the social and political exclusion of the poor is a driving force (Refugees International, 2005a). During colonialism, land was unequally divided, with the wealthy colonists having the largest proportion of the best land. The upper class consisted of predominately White, locally born landowners, while those in the lower class were primarily mestizo (mixed-race) laborers and farmers (Loughna, 2002). This inequality continued after independence from Spain in 1810. Colombian society continued to be highly stratified, with divisions based on types of employment, wealth, and Spanish heritage. It is one of the countries with the worst inequality levels in the world (World Bank, 2011). This social stratification has helped drive the violence.

What follows is a basic explanation of a complex problem.

After independence, two political parties were formed: the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals supported free trade, a federal government, and secularism; in contrast, the Conservatives wanted a centralized authoritarian government and strong Roman Catholicism and tended to favor the landed elite (Loughna, 2002). In the late 1940s, the assassination of the leading Liberal party presidential candidate resulted in a mass uprising. This helped trigger a period known as La Violencia (The Violence) from 1948 to 1958. In l958, the Liberal and Conservative parties developed a power-sharing system known as the National Front, which ended La Violencia, but due to its elite nature, it shut out the disenfranchised (the peasants). The peasants had survived La Violencia by moving to uninhabited areas of the country. They cleared their land for farming only to have it taken by the government. These rural dwellers decided that their only chance to achieve social justice was to wage a guerrilla war. The basic goal was agrarian reform, but they also were fighting for improved services, social equality, and improved distribution of income. The organization was formalized in 1964 as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). In that same year, another rebel group, ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional—National Liberation Army), was formed by university students on the principles of guerrilla warfare. During the 1960s these rebel groups remained in the rural areas of the nation and focused on achieving their goals of social justice.

However, they controlled these areas through terror and intimidation of local peasants, including such acts as kidnapping, murder of civilians, torture, and forced recruitment (IDMC, 2006). In 1974, the National Front power-sharing scheme was dissolved, but fundamental issues affecting the poor remained unresolved and the rebel groups fought on. In the 1970s and 1980s, the coca trade boomed, fueled by Americans’ and Europeans’ desire for cocaine as well as the drop in coffee prices (IDMC, 2006). Many of the rural peasants migrated to FARC-controlled areas to grow coca and to make money. This source of wealth provided the income they had long sought. However, the drug trade soon brought increased problems: Drug-related violence increased, drug barons bought up large farms to grow coca, and the production of food decreased as fields were used to grow coca instead of crops. FARC and ELN have now largely abandoned their original social justice goals and are focused on the wealth and power to be obtained through the drug trade.

While the rebels and the drug lords were originally in sympathy with each other, this ended as the drug lords became rich, bought land, and became the wealthy land owners against whom the rebels were fighting. The guerrillas began kidnapping family members of the drug lords as a good source of income, and the drug lords and other large landowners formed their own paramilitary armies to fight the guerrillas. However, the paramilitary did not restrict itself to only fighting the guerrillas: They also used this as an excuse to displace whole villages on the premise of fighting rebels, but in actuality to clear the land for the drug lords. These paramilitary forces were also aligned with the government, but the government forces were unable to control them. In 1989, membership in paramilitary groups was made illegal, but this did little to diminish their numbers or influence. The paramilitary forces were also known for human rights violations, including massacres, torture, and mass displacement. They engaged in “social cleansing,” killing those of whom they disapproved, including homosexuals, the homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts (IDMC, 2006).

There was a major demobilization of the paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s; however, since that time, new groups have emerged and are now causing displacements as well (IDMC, 2011). The government refers to these groups as “criminal gangs” (bandas criminales, commonly referred to as Bacrim) and does not recognize them as part of the ongoing conflict (Amnesty International, 2011). Many of the leaders of these new groups were mid-level commanders in the previous groups, but either did not demobilize or demobilized fraudulently (Human Rights Watch, 2010). These groups are much more disparate and less unified than the previous paramilitaries, but they operate in many of the same manners, including such human rights violations as violence, sexual violence, and “social cleansing” (Amnesty International. 2011).

While in many countries, fighting would be the primary cause of displacement, in Colombia, it is threats by the armed forces (IDMC, 2011). Threats have been increasing as the reason for displacement in recent years as compared to murders of loved ones, which have been decreasing (IDMC, 2011). Other reasons include fighting, sexual violence, and potential recruitment of children to fight (ICRC, 2012). Recruitment and use of children in armed groups is “widespread and systematic” according to the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (2012, ^2). All three of the factions fighting in Colombia use child soldiers, but the vast majority are fighting for FARC (United Nations Security Council, 2012a). Children as young as 8 years old are recruited by FARC, typically by force, and face severe punishment if they attempt to return home. The guerrilla groups have a relatively high use of females, with one-quarter to one-half of their soldiers being females (Human Rights Watch, 2003). FARC has refused to even engage in talks on their use of child soldiers.

Sexual violence has been widespread in the conflict. The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2012b, p. 1) noted that the Constitutional Court in Colombia stated that sexual violence was “a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the context of the Colombian armed conflict, perpetrated by all of the illegal armed groups and in isolated cases, by individual agents of the national armed forces.” Sexual violence is often used to force displacement of people from areas desired for their mining or agricultural wealth or for movement of drugs. She stated that that women and children are systematically targeted, particularly by FARC and the Bacrim. However, reporting is very low due not only to the shame and stigma, but fear of retribution. Confidence in the government to pursue justice is very low as in the cases that have been reported there is typically little investigation and even fewer prosecutions (Amnesty International, 2011).

Colombia’s laws governing services to those who have been internally displaced are among the most advanced in the world, but they have not been fully implemented and Colombia’s Constitutional Court has decreed the governmental response to be inadequate and unconstitutional (IDMG, 2011; UNHCR, 2006b). Seventy percent of IDPs have two or more unmet basic needs, including housing, basic sanitation, and school enrollment, compared to only 10% of urban dwellers (IDMC, 2006). Almost all (99%) of those displaced live below the poverty line as compared to 29% of nondisplaced persons; 83% live in extreme poverty compared to 8.7% of nondisplaced (Albuja & Ceballos, 2010). Due to difficulties with registration and bureaucracy, it can take up to 2 years for IDPs to begin receiving the assistance to which they are entitled (Albuja & Ceballos, 2010).

Those who have fled to the cities have difficulty re-establishing themselves. Those who do register receive only 3 months of assistance, such as emergency food and supplies. The displaced typically experience stigmatization in the urban areas to which they have fled; residents believe that these displaced persons are trying to “take advantage of the situation and try to get some free assistance.” They wonder what the displaced “have done to feel so threatened. Maybe they are guerrillas themselves” (Medecins Sans Frontieres,

2006, p. 30). This stigma makes it even more difficult for them to re-establish themselves after displacement.

Therefore, these people have great difficulty meeting their survival needs. They typically reside in illegal urban settlements where exploitation is common and threats to safety remain. Women and girls are vulnerable to sexual violence and youth face recruitment from the armed groups (Refugees International, 2012). Women may also have to engage in transactional sex in order to obtain goods for their families’ survival (Refugees International, 2009). Many children are among the displaced, and they have great difficulty accessing the national educational system, often due to associated costs such as uniforms, books, or transportation (IDMC, 2006).

The impact on family structure has been noticeable. Approximately three-quarters of IDPs are from rural areas where the traditional patriarchal family structure predominates. However, displacement frequently negatively impacts it. The male head of household may have been murdered or forced to flee separately from his family. Even for families that remain intact, the change in life in the urban environment can have a negative impact. Many of these men were small-scale farmers, with skills unsuited to an urban environment. Therefore, the woman will frequently have to become employed in order to bring money into the family.

The loss of the provider role negatively impacts the man, while the increase in responsibilities negatively impacts the woman (Velez & Bello, 2010).

Those most disproportionately affected by displacement are the traditionally most vulnerable and stigmatized groups: the indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. They constitute almost one-third of IDPs, despite their relatively small share of the population (IDMC, 2011). This disproportionate impact is due largely to the fact that these peoples were the most likely to be living in the affected rural areas, where there is commercial interest or the potential for drug production. Additionally, their skills are ill-suited for the urban environments to which they fled for safety, and they struggle to survive. The indigenous and Afro-Colombians have lower rates of employment and are less likely to be earning the minimum salary when they do find work. This is even more pronounced for women than for men. These groups also have lower rates of adequate housing and education than other IDPs (IDMC, 2011).

The displacement and persecution threaten the loss of their traditional culture. Many of these people traditionally have not had government identification, but they may be considered by paramilitary groups to be rebel sympathizers and face persecution if they cannot show identification (Spindler, 2003). One group noted that in the city to which they had fled, they lived in substandard conditions, families broke up, girls began working in the sex trade, and employment was difficult to find. They desperately wanted to return to their land, stating, “A campesino without land is like a fish without water. We need land to survive and maintain ourselves” (Refugees International, 2005b, ^8). Therefore, some decided to return even though it was not yet safe.

The aim of the government of Colombia is to return to their homes those who have been displaced, but this is difficult due to the continuing violence. Many do not want to return, and those who do have too little support to ensure their safety. Many returned civilians have been forced to flee again due to continuing instability in their home regions or because their land has become occupied by someone else in their absence (Refugees International, 2006). The vast majority of those displaced do not want to return if security concerns remain (IDMC, 2011; Lidchi, Tombs, Magalheas, & Lopez, 2004).

The governmental response to the situation of the IDPs has improved under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. In 2011, the Victims and Land Restitution Act was passed to provide compensation to those who had been displaced. If implemented correctly, it could return millions of acres of land to its rightful owners and provide justice to survivors of sexual violence. However, there are a number of limitations in the law. As the government does not recognize the Bacrim as paramilitaries in the conflict, those who experience violations at their hands are not eligible for restitution (Amnesty International, 2012c). Additionally, only those who lost their lands after 1991 will be eligible to gain them back (Amnesty International, 2012c). Advocates for land restitution and against sexual violence working against these and other barriers have been targets for murder (Amnesty International, 2012b; IDMC, 2011).

The physical and mental health of Colombians has obviously been affected. For many years, violence was the leading cause of death for both men and women in Colombia (Medecins Sans Frontieres, 2006). While it is no longer the number one cause, it remains one of the primary causes (International Association of National Public Health Institutes, 2013). Due to the conflict, it is difficult for health providers to reach rural residents, increasing their health needs. Those who have fled their homes will settle in urban slums, with the health risks associated with such living conditions. Medecins Sans Frontieres (2006) has noted the high level of physical symptoms associated with stress during medical examinations; patients frequently state that they have headaches, neck pain, back pain, and difficulty sleeping, among other symptoms. Rural villagers live in a high state of fear due to the frequent acts of violence that occur in their area. The children often have behavioral issues, such as being highly aggressive or withdrawn, and have difficulty concentrating in school.

The mental health implications of this trauma are far-reaching. Patients of Medecins Sans Frontieres frequently state that they need to tell their story, indicating the high need for mental health services to assist in resolving the trauma. Medecins Sans Frontieres psychologists have found that half of their consultations in the urban areas are triggered by experiences of violence; 37% of patients had experienced the murder of a close family member and 10% had a family member “disappear.” One study found that 52% of displaced women had suffered physical violence and 36% had suffered sexual violence (IDMC, 2006).

Mental health providers have worked to provide services in a manner that is accessible and effective for the population. As those in rural areas have limited access to mental health services, Medecins Sans Frontieres has developed a mobile clinic. However, due to the instability and geography, they are unable to provide regular ongoing visits and therefore have developed a single-session model for intervention. The vast majority reported improvement at the end of the session (Urrego, Abaakouk, Roman, & Contreras, 2009).

The family biogram has been found to be useful in working with those who have been internally displaced (Lidchi et al., 2004). This tool maps medical, socioeconomic, employment, and housing data over a longitudinal period. Themes have included changes in family structure, living conditions, trauma and loss, and available resources. This tool is useful to the family as it helps them examine how they have coped.

The needs in Colombia are great. The violence has been going on so long that most citizens cannot remember a time when it did not occur. As of 2013, talks for peace were occurring between the government and FARC, focused on land reform; however, progress has been described only as “modest” (“Columbia peace talks,” 2013).

What You Can Do Now

  • • Volunteer to teach English as a Second Language.
  • • Intern at an agency serving refugees and asylum seekers.
  • • Visit asylum seekers detained in prisons.
  • • Lobby for humane laws for asylum seekers.
  • • Write letters to media outlets asking them to cover stories relevant to refugees and asylum seekers to help others become aware of their plight.
  • • Volunteer or intern at an agency serving survivors of sexual assault.
  • • Support organizations such as Beyond the 11th by fundraising, screening a showing of their documentary, or other ways noted on their Web site
  • • Make sure diamond sales and purchases adhere to the Kimberley Process. Tell those you know if they must buy diamonds, to buy only from stores that certify they are conflict-free.
  • • Look at the company from where you buy your electronics. Do they certify they are not using conflict minerals?

What You Can Do as a Professional Social Worker

  • • Work for an organization helping to resettle refugees and asylum seekers in the United States.
  • • Work to create policies for more humane treatment of asylum seekers.
  • • Work for an international organization such as UNHCR or ICRC.
  • • Work in refugee areas to provide services in or near their home countries.
  • • Provide mental health services through an organization such as International Rescue Committee or Doctors Without Borders/ Medecins Sans Frontieres.
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