For many years, Colombia has been embroiled in conflict. The conflict is many-faceted, with complex social and economic issues driving the conflict forward. The most recent iteration of the conflict began in 2002, and continues today as a conflict between the internationally-recognized legitimate government of Colombia and a variety of guerilla groups, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army (often abbreviated as FARC and ELN respectively). However, the conflict has truly been going on since 1964 (Neuman, 2002). When a country is embroiled in conflict for so many years, it suffers many adverse consequences as a result of the ongoing violence. When the violence is combined with corruption at every level, as it is in the case of Colombia, the country often faces mass emigration (Neuman, 2002).
The people that emigrate from war-torn countries to countries like the United States are not often the poorest members of society; instead, the wealthy and well-educated are often more likely to emigrate, as they have the sophistication and the skills necessary to navigate the bureaucracy of emigration (Brice, 2009). Individuals who are less wealthy or educated often become refugees, and flee to nearby countries. However, although this is a good generalization for the effects of violence on a society, it is not necessarily always the case (Brice, 2009).
The conflict of today has its roots in the pre-1960s era; however, the violence of today truly began to escalate when the military units that were loyal to the Colombian government began to attack outlying peasant communities in rural Colombia (Rcusa.org, 2011). The ELN and the FARC are considered guerilla groups to this day; they were joined in the conflict in the 1970s by another group known as M-19 (Rcusa.org, 2011). Although the conflict began as an ideological dispute, today, it is linked inextricably with narco-trafficking and the drug trade (Rcusa.org, 2011).
The beginning of the 1980s appeared to be a turn-around for Colombia, because there wa a relative lull in the violence; however, fighting soon resumed, and by the mid-1980s, the fighting had reached a fever pitch again (Rcusa.org, 2011). The 1990s demonstrated more of the same; however, by 2000, there was hope on the horizon for Colombia again.
The President at the time, President Uribe, enacted a number of different policies that were designed to stem the violence caused by the narco-trafficking and the drug trade. However, these policies often came at the cost of human rights, causing further issues of unrest and murmurings of dissent and potential violence within the different guerilla groups (Rcusa.org, 2011).
In 2007, the violence erupted again after FARC reported the deaths of some of the political hostages they were holding prisoner (Rcusa.org, 2011). FARC claimed that the victims were caught in the crossfire when a compound was stormed, but the government of Colombia claimed that no such military operation took place and that FARC assassinated the hostages (Rcusa.org, 2011).
It should come as no surprise, given the extended nature of the violence in Colombia over the past forty years, that there have been massive amounts of people leaving the country to try to build lives for themselves in a safer environment. People who leave Colombia fit into two basic molds: those who leave Colombia and become refugees or ex-patriots in neighboring countries (usually Ecuador) and those who become ex-patriots in countries like the United States (Usccb.org, 2012).
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the conflict in Colombia has lead to major displacements over the past forty years. The USCCB writes:
Colombia has been torn apart by conflict for over 40 years. The war that has raged between the Colombian government, guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers has cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 – 200,000 people and has displaced millions of others. According to (UNHCR), there are currently 3.5 million internally displaced persons inside Colombia, while another 500,000 – 750,000 are seeking refuge It is the largest displacement crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and constitutes the seventh largest refugee population in the world. (Usccb.org, 2012)
Considering the number of armed conflicts happening in the world today, and the amount of people displaced by those conflict, the Colombian displacement is incredibly large, particularly for a country with a population of that size. The history of the violence within Colombia has shaped the ways in which displaced Colombians have adapted to their lives outside of Colombia; understandably, they have faced a variety of different types of challenges that are unique to the experiences they and their extended families had in Colombia.
The mass movement of Colombians out of Colombia in the time from the 1960s to today has been classified as a diaspora, or a massive migration of individuals from one place to another (Neuman, 2002). The diaspora has also been classified as a “brain drain,” a phenomenon common to countries experiencing long-term violence. A “brain drain” is what happens when the educated and wealthy tend to leave war-torn nations for better lives elsewhere; this movement has an incredibly detrimental impact on the short- and long-term prospects for the nation (Neuman, 2002). According to the Pew Hispanic Center, “Colombians have higher levels of education than the Hispanic population overall. Some 32% of Colombians ages 25 and older—compared with 13% of all U.S. Hispanics—have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree” (2010).
The New York Times, when writing about the mass exodus from Colombia, writes:
Bringing people back to Mampuján and other rural communities that have been terrorized for decades by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers has become a priority for the Colombian government. It has begun an ambitious nationwide program to give millions of acres of land back to tens of thousands of displaced farmers. But the effort has been complicated both by the logistical difficulty of sorting out who owns long-abandoned or disputed plots and the extreme fear that still lingers among those who left. (Brice, 2009).
War tears people away from the places they were born, and many people who are born into war-torn areas and have to leave never return. These displaced individuals often have children in their adopted homes, and their children become accustomed to life there, leading to integration with the new society. The wealthy and educated of Colombia are no exceptions to this rule; when they leave, they are often welcomed by their adopted countries due to their wealth and education (Brice, 2009). There is little incentive for these individuals to return back to their homeland, especially as it continues to be embroiled in violence and civil war.
Colombia faces two major problems: drug trafficking and violence against civilians. One expert, when discussing the violence that the average Colombia experiences, writes: “‘Violence against civilians is a strategy of war for all the parties involved in the warfareThat's the problem. They do it on purpose. They use it as a strategy. Vicious’” (Brice, 2009). For Colombians who are displaced and living in the United States, these experiences of extreme violence follow them. This memory of violence is an interesting phenomenon-- even when children are born away from the violence of the home country, some of the values and problems that the parents experienced are still instilled within the children, creating a cultural footprint of the violence in the home country.
Nearly two thirds of the Colombians in the United States are foreign-born-- this is an incredibly high figure, particularly when compared with Hispanic individuals as a whole (only 37% of Hispanic individuals are foreign-born) (Pew Hispanic Center, 2010). This indicates that many of the Colombians in the United States are still very much refugees in the technical sense, even if they are not in the legal sense; these are individuals who fled a war-torn nation and now reside in a foreign country, where they must rely upon their education to make their way in the new place they are in.
The United States is also in a unique position regarding Colombia and the displaced Colombians that are currently living in the United States. American international relations and political policies have directly resulted in some of the problems that Colombians are currently facing; the War on Drugs, for instance, is one of the American policies that has been problematic for Colombia in the past (The Migration Information Source, 2007).
Colombia’s drug trade is incredibly large and lucrative; Colombia is the single highest exporter of cocaine in the world, a drug that has an extremely high sell value on the streets. There is significant sociological, political, and anthropological evidence that suggests that the United States’ drug policies have directly impacted the state of affairs in Colombia over the past few years (Brice, 2009).
The United States has the ability to help stabilize things in countries like Colombia, at least marginally; however, historically, the United States has been unwilling to work with socialist or communist groups to stabilize countries, instead favoring regimes that are sympathetic to the United States but often oppressive and violent towards the people (Brice, 2009). This puts immigrant Colombians in a difficult place, as the United States is indirectly responsible for some of the suffering they experienced in their homeland, but it is also their new, adoptive home. This type of cognitive dissonance can be very troublesome for individuals who are trying to adapt to a new and different living environment.
Not all Colombian refugees and emigrants are as lucky as those who are wealthy and educated. Many individuals who leave Colombia are neither of these things; they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation both within and outside of Colombia. According to the USCCB:
For some Colombian refugees, resettlement to a third country is the only option that will allow them to receive adequate protection.Certain refugees continue to be persecuted in their countries of asylum, while others are not able to support themselves due to exclusion from the job market.Of particular concern are Afro-Colombian refugees, unaccompanied Colombian minors, and refugee women at risk of exploitation, including victims of trafficking, all of whom should be prioritized for resettlement. (Usccb.org, 2012)
Human trafficking is certainly a global issue, and it is one that many countries struggle with. However, Colombia faces a disproportionate amount of human trafficking for the size and population of the nation. Kidnapping is also a complex issue, and many poor, rural Colombians live in constant fear of the violence and terror of kidnappings for ransom and for trafficking, although they are not alone in this; guerilla groups will often kidnap influential individuals or their loved ones for political clout and leverage (Usccb.org, 2012).
It has often been said that the United States is a melting pot of different cultures, but this is less accurate than it would seem. In reality, America is more of a cultural mosaic; people from different cultures tend to geographically group together and maintain certain aspects of their culture. On the whole, Colombians of a certain economic status adapt well to life in the United States, but those who come from lower socio-economic rungs have a much more difficult time.
Colombians that are wealthy and well-educated often speak English at a passable level; those who are not will have a much lower level of English proficiency, if they are proficient at all upon arrival. This greatly curtails the amount of assimilation that can happen for those individuals. Children who do not speak English and are inserted into poorer school districts will probably fare badly because they will not have access to ESL-style classrooms; their language inability, rather than their intelligence, may set them back entire grade levels.
Students who underperform in school as a result of language also may go and seek out other ways to pass the time or to make money. In poor communities, this may mean that the youth is very involved in gang activity, particularly those that have connections to the drug trafficking world in Colombia. While this is certainly not a rule for all Colombian youths, Colombian gangs in the United States are quite powerful, and are known for being ruthless and violent.
Another issue that Colombians face in the United States is a particular stigma that is attached to their cultural heritage. There is an idea among Americans that Colombia and Colombians are inextricably linked to the drug trade; while the drug trade is very prevalent in Colombia, certainly not all Colombians are involved in the drug trade. This can make it difficult for individuals to find work, even if they are well-qualified and have passed the bar for entry that other prospective employees would have passed.
Colombians who leave their country and come to America may have more opportunities to live lives free from violence and oppression, but their success is certainly not guaranteed. Emigrants and refugees have to work hard to integrate into American society, and may face untold challenges over the course of the assimilation process. Some do not wish to assimilate; for those individuals, life in America will continue to be difficult and unpleasant as a result of the failure to adjust.
Brice, Arthur. "Guerrilla war displaces millions of Colombians." CNN, May 22, 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/05/22/colombia.displaced/ (accessed 2nd April 2013).
Neuman, William. "Displaced Residents Grapple With Hurdles of Going Home." The New York Times, December 2, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/world/americas/displaced-colombians-grapple-with-the-hurdles-of-going-home.html (accessed 2nd April 2013).
Pew Hispanic Center. "Hispanics of Colombian Origin in the United States, 2010." 2012. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/06/27/hispanics-of-colombian-origin-in-the-united-states-2010/ (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
Rcusa.org. "Refugee Council USA - Displaced Colombians." 2011. http://www.rcusa.org/index.php?page=displaced-colombians (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
Refugeesinternational.org. "Colombia: Refugees International." 2012. http://refugeesinternational.org/where-we-work/americas/colombia (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
The Migration Information Source. "Colombia: In the Crossfire." 2007. http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=344 (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
UNHCR.org. "UNHCR supports project to help displaced Colombians in Medellin." 2012. http://www.unhcr.org/4f8449076.html (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
UNHCR.org. "UNHCR - Colombia." 2011. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492ad6.html (accessed 3 Apr 2013).
Usccb.org. "Colombian Refugees: No Solutions in Sight." 2012. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/migrants-refugees-and-travelers/columbianrefugees.cfm (accessed 3 Apr 2013).