Posted by Pablo Rojas Mejia on Nov 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Displacement is a human tragedy, not a publicity crisis

Colombia news - displaced

The UNHCR’s claim that Colombia’s displaced population is the world’s largest drew some much-needed attention to an age-old problem. Unfortunately, the government’s response treats the issue more as a publicity crisis than as what it really is, a national humanitarian tragedy.

This week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced at a regional summit in Ecuador that Colombia’s internally displaced population was the largest in the world. The news really should not have come as a big shock to anyone. By all measures, including the government’s own conservative estimates, at least 3 million Colombians have been displaced by violence in the past decade. No other country’s displaced population comes even close to that number, except Sudan’s. In other words, Colombia has been either number one or number two in global displacement rankings for many years.

Given that Colombia’s ranking really depends on research methodology, one can assume that the purpose of the UNHCR was not to make a definitive point about the rankings per se, but rather to highlight the gravity of an often overlooked humanitarian crisis. In a region where high-intensity warfare is a thing of the past, it is easy to ignore the fact that Colombia is experiencing a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions and one which is unlikely to go away anytime soon. In this sense, I welcome any effort to draw international attention to internal displacement in Colombia.

Strangely, while the announcement succeeded in breathing new life into debates and discussions about displacement in Colombia, these debates have been remarkably wasteful. Accion Social, a Colombian presidential agency dedicated to displacement, responded by arguing that the U.N. had never produced a report concretely proving Colombia’s number one ranking.  One some level, it is natural and understandable for the government to want to defend its record in dealing with this problem. On the other hand, Accion Social’s response reveals an appallingly misguided approach to this issue.

First, why does Accion Social care so much if Colombia is first or second in these rankings? Although the distinction has some minimal symbolic importance, it says very little about the responsibilities of the Colombian government and how it is dealing with this crisis. Even if war breaks out elsewhere and Colombia suddenly drops to third or fourth, this will do absolutely nothing for our country’s victims. Second, debating about rankings seems a lot like debating about the gravity of the problem, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Everyone should be in agreement that the country is experiencing a displacement crisis – hence the very existence of Accion Social. The government and media’s focus should therefore be primarily on discussing potential solutions to the problem, rather than on arguing over how bad it is.

To be fair, the government does not deserve all of the blame. Indeed, I see Accion Social’s response as part of a broader national attitude: worrying too much about the country’s image and too little about its concrete problems. This past week, for example, reader complaints compelled Colombia Reports editor Adriaan Alsema to write a column explaining why he loves Colombia despite reporting on its problems and challenges. Such an explanation should be completely unnecessary. In my view, the fact that Adriaan, who is Dutch, lives in Medellin and has dedicated the past years of his life to bringing news about Colombia to an international audience says more than enough about his commitment to the country.

Indeed, in most mature democracies, it is commonly understood that loving your country is by no means mutually incompatible with recognizing its problems. I would argue that true patriotism, in fact, requires recognizing your country’s pressing challenges, even if exposing those problems might lead to negative stereotypes abroad. Instead, the attitude of many Colombians seems to be that acknowledging the suffering of our country’s victims does more harm than good. By this logic, anyone who talks about displacement, violence or poverty must by definition hate Colombia, and true patriots are those who spend their time telling gringos about tourist attractions.

As a Colombian, I understand where this perverse brand of patriotism comes from. I, too, am offended when Hollywood films portray Bogota as some kind of jungle town, but to try to cancel out these misperceptions with the equally inaccurate image that all is hunky dory in Colombia is hardly a step in the right direction. As much as I would like Colombia to be some kind of utopia, I have a duty to the millions of people who are still excluded from the relative safety and prosperity that some Colombians enjoy.

I would hope for the government to lead by example on this issue, to show that acknowledging and dealing with what is truly a humanitarian crisis is one of the purest forms of patriotism. Unfortunately, the government often does the exact opposite. Although Accion Social has a right to dispute the technicalities of the UNHCR’s announcement, it also has a responsibility to accept the organization’s general point about displacement in Colombia. Sadly, their handling of this issue shows just why a country that is so successful at launching tourism and publicity campaigns has been so appallingly ineffective at dealing with a decades-old displacement crisis.