BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Resolving land tenure issues, granting land titles and good urban planning are key ways to help internally displaced people in cities across Colombia and other parts of the world rebuild their lives, experts and U.N. officials told a high-level conference on displacement.
Nearly five decades of fighting between the government, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups have uprooted nearly five million Colombians, according to latest government figures.
This makes the South American nation home to the highest internally displaced population (IDP) in the world - greater than that of Syria with 3 million and the Democratic Republic of Congo with 2.7 million IDPs, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) says.
Nearly half of all those displaced in Colombia live in 26 cities across the country. Many do not want to return to their former homes in the countryside and should be helped to stay where they are by improving their living conditions there, officials and experts said.
In Bogota, hundreds of thousands of displaced families have settled over the years in hilltop slums in the southern outskirts of the capital, far away from and out of sight of residents of the affluent northern neighbourhoods.
“Displaced people in cities are living in precarious situations. This doesn’t give hope to young people,” Terry Morel, head of the UNHCR office in Colombia, told the conference in Bogota on Tuesday.
Many of Bogota’s displaced families live in shacks made from scrap metal and bricks on land they do not own. Most slum dwellers have little option but to buy drinking water from privately run water trucks and mules lugging jerrycans of water along the steep unpaved slopes.
At traffic lights in Bogota, women holding placards saying “we’ve been displaced by the violence, please help”, weave through traffic begging for small change. Other displaced families struggling to scrape a living find temporary work as cleaners and on building sites.
To help displaced people get back on their feet, initiatives must focus more on urban development where they live, including building sewage systems, health clinics, decent housing and better access to drinking water.
“For durable solutions to displacement, more programmes in urban areas need to be designed. This needs to come with economic development and an urgent improvement in basic services and housing,” Morel said.
Many of the displaced people do not want to go back to their rural homes, she said. “According to surveys, around 80 percent of IDPs living in urban areas say they don’t want to go back to rural areas or can’t go back,” Morel said.
Giving land titles to displaced families living in illegal settlements in the cities would go a long way towards alleviating their plight and fostering a sense of citizenship and belonging.
“Legalization of land titles is very important. The conflict (in Colombia) has been a very long one. There have been people who have re-started their lives in the urban setup, many coming from rural areas, their children, friends and life are there in the cities,” Marta Juarez, head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) Americas office in Geneva, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“Colombia should perhaps find solutions to means of legalizing the areas where urban displaced people have settled and provide them the security they are longing for. With the security of land tenure will come other services, like education and a better future,” Juarez said.
The government of Juan Manuel Santos is forging ahead with plans to provide cheap housing to displaced people and those living in extreme poverty, offering 100,000 free homes and mortgages at rock bottom interest rates.
The government also provides humanitarian aid to displaced families and passed historic legislation in 2011 that entitles displaced families and other victims of the conflict to financial compensation and the return of land stolen by armed groups to the rightful owners.
Katy Long, a researcher at the London School of Economics (LSE), said that in countries where displacement is a long-standing problem, governments should focus on urban planning where IDPs are now, rather than trying to return displaced families to their original homes.
“Repatriation must not be seen as the solution. This is what prevents sustainable solutions,” Long, from the LSE’s department of international development, told the conference.
“A solution to protracted displacement is about not seeing the solution in terms of return or relocation. It’s not a humanitarian solution but a development and urban planning issue. The future of displacement is an urban one and therefore the solution to displacement has to be an urban one.”
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