Nomadic Colombia: Not Just Numbers

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About 4 million of Colombians live abroad sending remittances to the country for US$4,043 million, what represents 3.7% of the Gross Domestic Product of Colombia, according with a research of Universidad del Rosario.

When we talk about displaced people due to violence, war, conflicts or natural disasters, we intend human groups that let their homes or regions and move within the same country. However, it is not used to include in such groups the ones who look for refuge abroad if they cannot prove it, coming inside a generalized concept of migrants. The Universidad del Rosario of Bogotá in its investigation about legal and institutional mechanisms to guarantee the protection of human rights of the displaced peoples in Colombia, put attention to the problem of Colombian migrants in connection to the problem of displaced human groups due to violence. The research was coordinated by Professor Rocío del Pilar Peña with a team of students of Law of the same University between January and June 2006.

By Albeiro Rodas | Picture “Colombia gótica” by Insight. Colombian in Barcelona.

The problem of displaced population, especially poor, is a world emergency according with the report of the International Red Cross. For 2003, 175 millions of persons were displaced due to violence, war, political conflicts, poverty or natural disasters, making it the double of population than in 1975. But at the same time, those displaced people who move to foreign territories, became an important factor of economics for their original countries. To that year, 2003, it was estimated that US$80,000 million were sent by displaced migrants to their country and it means that it was more than the international add to the developping countries that was only US$50,000 million.

Bogotá Desplazados. Picture by plastictaxi.

Colombia is one of those countries where its migrants abroad are sharing a big part of contribution of its Gross Domestic Product with a 3.7%, according with studies done by the National Council of Economic and Social Politics of Colombia – Conpes – by 2004. That means about US$4.043 million, therefore a share so much important as the contributions made by the coffee and oil production. In the consular archives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Colombia by 2004, there were 768.722 persons registered abroad, but it is certain that Colombians abroad by that year were about 4.243.208 persons, it means twice the population of the Department of Atlantico (2.121.001), more than the population of the Metropolitan Area of Medellín (3.312.165) and twice the population of Cali (2.068.387). According with the Ministry, in the first years of the 21th Century the Colombians moved abroad in the following proportions: 48% to United States and Canada, 40% to Latin America and the Caribbean Region and 11% to Europe. About forced displacement, the most affected Colombian departments are those of the borders – Putumayo and Nariño to Ecuador and Peru; Chocó to Panama and North of Santander to Venezuela.- According with the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Refugees, Colombia is the third world country with the most serious humanitarian crisis after Sudan and Congo estimating that between 2 and 3 million of Colombians abandoned their original places in the last 15 years. Between January and September 2004 there were 8.500 refugee applications in Ecuador and Venezuela and, according with the study of Universidad del Rosario, it becomes the first problem to be faced by the Colombian State, because in the last 15 years 10% of the Colombian population has settled their homes abroad.

Are Colombians abroad protected?

The study of Universidad del Rosario concluded that even if it is legally clear the definitions and treatments to internal displaced people, refugees and persons applying for the refugee condition, the definitions still short because consider only as displaced those who migrate within the national territory and do not look those who – by the same reasons -, leave the country and that do not fit the necessary conditions to be considered as refugges or applying for such condition. The most relevant cases are those who just cross the border because they live near to it, but they are not in such definition those who move out because economic problems, unemployment, social unequality and other factors that motivate the migration. Either for UN or for the Colombian State, a displaced is a person who has to abandon his/her home because threat to his life due to any kind of violence, but persons who displace due to economic difficulties are not considered displaced. In such way, the Colombian that did migrate due to poverty, is let practically alone abroad. To this respect says the study of del Rosario:

“Now well, if the public politics to prevent and solve the problem of internal displacement have been insufficient, in what refers to the politics and programs for the Colombians who for any reason migrate to other countries, bright for its absent or, at the best of the cases, it is limited to cyber contatcs by a Web page. The Ministry of Foreign Relations affirms that about 4 million of Colombians live abroad, from which ones a high percent left in the last decade and they are qualified man power.”

Within that Nomadic Colombia that together could constitute a Colombian department, many of them are professionals. For example, according with a National Research on families (1997), in Bogotá the 4% of heads of family had a professional degree or specialization. The percent rised to 5,9% in 1998 and went down to 4% in 1999. This information means that Colombia has lost US$6 million due to the migration of brains.

In December 2000 the Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations said to the Congress of the Republic:

“The 76th Law of 1993 has allowed us a camp of action to assist our citizens abroad, but it is a law with its limits according with what we can see, because it reduces such assistance only to the subject of prisioners abroad. What we see is that we have to wide this legal subject in order that our consulates will be able to give a best service to our citizens.” (Colombia, 2th Commission of the Senate, speech of the Vice-Ministry of Foreign Relations, December 2000. The Vice-Minister refered to the 76th Law on regulations on protection to Colombians abroad).

Mexico and Peru

The study lets some conclusions. The first is that Colombian migrants abroad are a fragile population vulnerable to many difficulties, specially in countries where legislation about migrants is not clear. Knowing also that the Colombians abroad became in fact an economic force in the contribution of the national GDP, they are worthy of a best attention. The decition of the government of President Uribe to reduce consulates and embassies abroad does not correspond with the importance of this sector, according with the study and it needs a more clear attention and a best preparation of the diplomatic arena to a best organization of consulates and embassies.

For the study, the politics of Mexico and Peru were taken as models of how to response to the situation of citizens abroad. In the case of Mexico, its State looks for the protection and effective fulfillment of the human rights of its migrants abroad, specially to the United States that is the first country looked by Mexicans for employment. Universidad del Rosario said that it is necessary to underline that the Mexican legislation on its people is not just writen words but a practical legislation and it has also a society that is sensitive to what happens to its country people abroad and reacts with mechanisms of help and protection when require:

“In few words, the Mexican State realized long time ago about the problem of migration. Its politics are directed to protect the rights abroad, avoiding tragedies in the intention to migrate without the legal required conditions and, in the same way, trying to proffit the economic position of the migrants who, with any doubt, make an important place in the context of the economic incomes to the country.”

The other country is Peru that has a clear migration politic with a legal support plus agreements with foreign countries. It allows the State to create organizations, institutions, plans, projects, politics, programs and other resources to consolidate the protection of the Peruvians abroad. Peru had a similar situation to Colombia with its displaced population and could develop a more effective and protected migration legal frame.

About Colombia, says the study of Universidad del Rosario, the politics on migration are limited to cultural activities intended to the strenght of the links to the Mother Land. In this context we can find programs like Colombia Nos Une (Colombia Joins Us) leaded by the Ministry of Foreign Relations in the search of the Colombian communities abroad, making them participants in the national life and object of the public policies. Nevertheless, the growing interest of the goverment in the Colombian communities abroad is seen also as trying to take an advantage with not retribution on them, only as an economic factor of big importance. Such interest still not compare with the politics of countries like Mexico and Peru where politics of protection are real politics of protection to those already out and to those who are about to leave and not only seen their citizens abroad as numbers to grow the national economy of the country.

Cite this article

RODAS, Albeiro. Nomadic Colombia: Not Just Numbers. Articule about “Migración de colombianos: ¿una expresión moderna de orfandad?“, Rocío del Pilar Peña Huertas, Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, 2005. Published by Colombia Passport: Economics, Society and Culture in Colombia, July 8, 2007.


PEÑA HUERTAS, Rocío del Pilar, Migración de colombianos: ¿una expresión moderna de orfandad? Una aproximación a las políticas públicas dirigidas a los colombianos en el exterior. Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, 6 de diciembre de 2005.

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