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Finding peace in Colombia

Catalina Quintero's picture
Sunday was the day that all Colombians, in Colombia or abroad, voted in a referendum to ratify or not the peace agreement that was signed on September 26 between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group and the Colombian government.
As a Colombian living in Washington, D.C., I was serving as a voting monitor (Colombians citizens who volunteer to make sure the process runs smoothly and transparently) here all day, from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. Most of us were for the YES vote; so we were both saddened and surprised when we heard the news that the NO vote had narrowly won.
Though I was pessimistic at first, I thought about the great peacemakers of this world, and in particular Nelson Mandela who once said: "In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people." I have come to a different conclusion about this supposed "blow" to achieving peace in my country. I think this is a lesson in what the true meaning of peace is, especially for those of us who work on combatting conflict and often think that peace is a technocratic agreement.
City view of Bogotá, Colombia.  (Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank)

It is true that society has been extremely polarized in recent months, and that although this is likely the most comprehensive and technically sound peace deal in this 50+-year-old conflict, the process was not very inclusive or transparent of society at large. Corruption scandals in the current government abound, and the fear that we might turn into another Venezuela if the FARC gain political power (which the agreement provides for to an extent) are not that far-fetched for many Colombians glancing over the border. The process divided Colombian families. There is not one person I have spoken to that has told me that they could easily breach the subject at dinner without a real fight breaking out.
The NO vote was a lesson to us Colombians that polarization and choosing sides here isn't the way, that listening to the other rather than just maintaining our position is what we need the most. If we are fighting, and if there is violence verbal or physical within our hearts and minds and at the most basic level of the family, how can we have a national peace when we aren't even at peace with ourselves let alone our family members or colleagues at work? Peace is the work of a united nation, a united effort.
I don't think all is lost, in fact, I think this NO vote reminds us that for the peace agreement to hold, we need to be more inclusive of all opposing views. What works for peace is love and not fear, understanding and trust of the other rather than ostracizing someone for a different opinion. It is about taking that anger and resentment within and transforming it, because they don't work. Humility and calmness do.
President Santos has declared that the ceasefire still holds while democratically recognizing the NO vote. Former President Uribe has also emphasized his will for peace and for continued conversations with the FARC so that the opposition's views can be included in the agreements. Finally, the FARC has said they will not return to "the jungle" to fight ever again.
The whole point is that we had forgotten to look ourselves in the eye, each Colombian, and realize that we are both part of the problem and solution to finding it within ourselves.


How many years do refugees stay in exile?

Xavier Devictor's picture
"The average length of time that refugees spend in camps is 17 years." This cruel statistic has been quoted many times, influencing our perception of refugee crises as never-ending events which are spinning out of control. It has significant implications when deciding the type of aid that is needed, the combination of humanitarian and development support, and the possible responses to the crisis.

But is it true? Not so.

In fact, the "17 year" statistic comes from a 2004 internal UNHCR report, and it was accompanied by many caveats which have been lost along the way. The statistic does not refer to camps, since the overwhelming majority of refugees live outside camps. It is limited to situations of five years or more, so it is an average duration of the longest situations, not of all situations. Most importantly, it refers to the duration of situations, not to the time people have stayed in exile.

Take the situation of Somali refugees in Kenya. Refugees started to arrive massively around 1993, about 23 years ago. Their number now stands at 418,000. But can we say that all 418,000 have been in exile for 23 years?

In fact, forced displacement situations are inherently dynamic. As we see in Figure 1, numbers vary every year: they reflect political and military developments in the country of origin. In fact, a large part of the current total could not have arrived before 2008, i.e. about 6 or 7 years ago.

Figure 1 Number of Somali refugees in Kenya (UNHCR data)

Along these lines, and using data published by UNHCR as of end-2015, we re-calculated the earliest date at which various cohorts of refugees could have arrived in each situation (see working paper). We then aggregated all situations into a single "global refugee population" and calculated global averages and median durations.

So what are the results?

When we look at the "global refugee population" (See Figure 2), we can now distinguish several distinct episodes of displacement.

Figure 2 Number of refugees by year of exile

There is a large cohort of about 8.9 million "recent refugees," who arrived over the last four years. This includes about 4.8 million Syrians, as well as people fleeing from South Sudan (0.7 million), Afghanistan (0.3 million), Ukraine (0.3 million), the Central African Republic (0.3 million), and Pakistan (0.2 million).

Another large cohort, of about 2.2 million, has spent between 5 and 9 years in exile. It includes refugees from Afghanistan (0.5 million), the bulk of the current Somali refugees (0.4 million), and people fleeing from Colombia (0.3 million) and Myanmar (0.2 million).

About 2 million people have been in exile between 10 and 34 years. This includes years during which numbers are relatively low, and two episodes where they are higher, around 14 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.2 million Sudanese refugees, and around 24 and 25 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.1 million Somalis and 0.1 million Eritreans.

Lastly, a large group of refugees has been in exile for 35 to 37 years: these 2.2 million refugees include mainly Afghans, but also about 0.3 million ethnic Chinese who fled into China during the 1979 war with Vietnam. Finally, there are few very protracted situations, up to 55 years, including mainly Western Sahara.

We can now turn to average durations. As of end-2015, the median duration of exile stands at 4 years, i.e. half of the refugees worldwide have spent 4 years or less in exile. The median has fluctuated widely since the end of the Cold War, in 1991, between 4 and 14 years, and it is now at a historical low. By contrast, the mean duration stands at 10.3 years, and has been relatively stable since the late 1990s, between 10 and 15 years.

But this leads to another important finding: trends can be counter-intuitive. In fact, a decline in the average duration of exile is typically not an improvement, but rather the consequence of a degradation of the global situation. The averages increase in years when there are relatively few new refugees, and they drop when large numbers of people flow in, for example in 1993-1994 (with conflicts in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda), in 1997-1999 (with conflicts in DRC and other parts of Africa), after 2003 (with conflict in Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan), and since 2013 (with the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic).

We also looked at the number of people who have spent more than five years in exile. As of end-2015, this number stands at 6.6 million, and it has been remarkably stable since 1991, at 5 to 7 million throughout most of the period.  For this group, however, the average duration of exile increases over time – largely because of the unresolved situation of Afghan refugees which pushes averages up. It is now well over 20 years.

This short analysis of UNHCR data shows that available refugee data can be used to clarify some important parts of the policy debate. It is important to ensure that this debate is informed by evidence, which can help provide a more nuanced perspective of a complex issue.