Steady, gainful employment is an important part of of resolving Colombia’s IDP crisis. In most cases of forced displacement in Colombia, families flee their homes in rural areas for the relative safety (and anonymity) of larger cities. In the process, they leave behind their agricultural livelihoods, assets, and social networks.
Helping these displaced escape their vulnerability by putting them on the pathway to work will grant them self-reliance – and also allow them contribute to their new communities. It must therefore be a high priority for Colombia’s government and its international partners.
The urban settlements where most Colombian IDPs take refuge provide a modicum of security and humanitarian assistance, but neither is guaranteed over the long-term. The emergency assistance IDPs receive is subject to the availability of government funding, and few IDPs are assured of help for more than 90 days. That simply does not provide enough time for someone to restart their life – particularly when the trauma of displacement is compounded by a difficult rural-to-urban transition. Indeed, wherever I went – Cali, Cartagena, Turbaco, or Villavicencio – the urban IDPs that I met all criticized the the unreliable assistance they received, which did little to help them become self-sufficient.
Of course, this is not the only problem Colombia’s IDPs face. Most live in cramped and rickety shelters, in flood-prone shantytowns. IDPs told me about the high levels of violence in these settlements, the streets that ran with raw sewage, and the limited access to public services. Displaced women also worried about the welfare of their adolescent children – with their daughters vulnerable to sexual abuse and their sons frequently targeted for recruitment by illegal armed groups. But by far the biggest cause of frustration was the lack of gainful employment, and the feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness it caused.
(See video below.)
Several local officials who work with IDPs told me they believed displaced people did not really want to work. But the barriers IDPs face in the local labor market are the real problems. Most jobs are not guaranteed to last more than a few months, and yet IDPs must surrender their claim to assistance when they start to work. For most, the risk of losing everything is just too high.
Even finding the time to search for work presents a challenge: one IDP family told me that it took an entire day just to obtain assistance for rent, another for school fees, and yet another for food. Several IDP women also said child care services were necessary to allow them to work full-time.
To give these IDPs the stability and dignity of secure employment, new strategies must be adopted. First, vocational training programs have to be geared toward the kinds of positions available in the local economy, and should be paired with job placements. Second, public-private partnerships - such as paid apprenticeships - should be adopted to help families gradually move from humanitarian assistance to work. Third, investments in child care services should be made with the twin goal of creating jobs and keeping IDP children safe. And finally, to discourage aid dependence, the government must ensure that its assistance packages do not disincentivize work or make it too risky a proposition to pursue.
Whatever it takes, providing millions of urban IDPs with the tools, training, and opportunities needed to find work must be a priority - both to relieve short-term suffering and build a foundation for economic stability and growth.