Internally displaced populations
Shanty town in Lima
Shanty town in Lima

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that internally displaced persons (IDP's) are persons that were obligated to flee from areas within their own countries , and chose to seek refuge within the borders of their country, as opposed to crossing borders. This is different than a “refugee” in that a refugee is a person that seeks refuge across the border from their home country. The causes of internal displacement are varied between the literature. It may be caused by internal strife, armed conflict, development, natural disaster etc., however the one cause consistent in all the definitions is that of conflict within the borders. The other commonality is that all of these reasons for displacement have all resulted in human rights violations (Mooney, p. 15). The current global situation, as reported by the UNHCR, estimates that 26 million IDPs are in existence as of 2008. 4.5 million of those are in Latin America alone, as reported by the International Displacement Monitoring Center.

Internally Displaced Family

In the beginning.....

The term “internally displaced persons” has only been being recorded since about 1982 (IDMC), but given the fact that it is often caused by conflict within the borders/region, this has likely been a phenomenon that has occurred since well before the colonization of Latin America. By the time the Post Classic Period arrived in Mesoamerica (950ce -1520ce), for example, most of the civilizations were quite modern, and we can already start to see the beginnings of militarization (Kent, 2006, p. 74). So began the basis of the fight for land between the Aztecs and Mayan cultures. With the presence of other indigenous groups in the region, logically many would have been displaced from areas that the Aztecs desired to rule over for the sake of wealth and power. Similarly in South America, just prior to colonization, the Incan empire had conquered a vast area from the south of Colombia, east to Argentina, including parts of Bolivia, and encompassed Chile almost entirely (Kent, 2006, p. 76). Within the Incan empire itself, there was strife between the two principle leaders, who happen to be brothers, that began to wage war against each other (Martin & Wasserman, 2008, p. 86) Again, it is likely that many indigenous groups in those areas were displaced as a result of these wars.

Mayan Warfare

Along come the Spanish . . .

With the possibility of internal displacement occurring prior to the arrival of the Spanish, colonization would have only exacerbated the problem. Especially when their goal was “God, gold and glory”, as stated in the book by Buchenau (2008), Mexican Mosaic (p. 16). And so started the bandwagon of new military conquests (Buchenau, 2008, p. 17). As Cortez arrives in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs had little choice but to relent to the Spanish or die. Ironically enough, those that had been warring and likely displaced by the Aztecs, indigenous groups like the Tlacxcalans, sided with the Spanish and assisted in the conquering of the Aztecs (Kent, 2006, p. 78). Few may have chosen to flee, becoming internally displaced. As the conquest develops, the indigenous were chased off land that appealed to the Spanish for the purposes of urban centers, seaside ports, or agricultural wealth, as stated in the Latin American Studies 203 lectures. By the end of the siege, Cortes had established rule over an area that extended into what is now Texas, Mexico , south into Central America to Costa Rica. This area became know as the viceroyalty of New Spain (Kent, 2006, p. 96).

South America had a similar history with the arrival of Pizzaro. Many indigenous peoples were living in the Andean highlands at the arrival of the Spanish, perhaps by choice, perhaps by force. Mining became the mainstay for wealth and any indigenous populations that occupied these areas, were forced to work, (mi'ta labor). Lucky for the Spanish, the Incan Empire had already established a hierarchy that ensured the power and wealth were in the possession of the elite and the strong military class” (Kent, 2006, p. 117). The fact that large populations of indigenous lived in the central andes, what is known today as southern Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and the extreme north of Argentina, meant that these were the people that lost the majority of land in these areas (Kent, 2006, p. 136). However, there were indigenous communities, such as the Quechua and Aymara, possibly displaced by the Incan wars or by the Spanish conquest, that did survive, but did so in remote/marginal lands that the Spanish did not want own themselves (Kent, 2006, p.138).

These areas, Mesoamerica and the central Andes, became known as quite advanced societies, and as a result, land ownership became a source and symbol of wealth. Land ownership, prior to the Spanish conquest, was limited to those of nobility (Kent, 2006, p. 207). When the Spanish arrived, this practice had already existed in Spain, therefore it continued after the conquest. This resulted in the marginalization of indigenous peoples, who in order to survive, were forced to re-locate to unused and generally inadequate land, or move to the cities.

And then they are gone . . . .

Martin and Wasserman (2008) in their book Latin America and Its People, call it "A century of War" (p. 285). They describe a hundred years of constant war or "some kind of military action" in any given region throughout Latin America after independence. Wars continued throughout Mexico and Guatemala, as leaders attempted to find their own governance and land ownership. The Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala continued to suffer as a result of the "criollo elite", even after managing to retain most or their land and culture during the conquest (Kent, 2006, p. 194). The indigenous in Mexico, as well as the peasant mestizos, engaged in a war against the government after they were denied land ownership in the 1910 land reform proposal (Kent, 2006, p. 222). Similarly in South America, regions continued to hash out their borders in often bloody and brutal wars, and at times included international players such as the United States. Wars within regions began to cause an economic decline, such as Bolivia's loss of access to the Pacific ocean in the late 1800's. Colombia's civil war in the mid 1800's over landholdings began to cause marginalization of the people within the country (Martin and Wasserman, 2008, p. 288-290). Throughout this immense instability throughout Latin America caused by the constant warfare, it is inevitable that those not fighting, those just trying to live in peace, have to continue to move and therefore, become displaced.

How does the current political situation add to the Internally Displaced populations of Latin America?

The specific political situation in each country will contribute to and vary the exact reasons behind the fostering atmosphere that has been created for displaced populations in some Latin American countries. However there are some general effects left over in Latin America from colonization that could be linked to causal factors with internally displaced populations.

By the beginning of the year 2009, the total estimated figure of IDP’s in Latin America was up to over 4.5 million. The majority of this figure is due to the escalating numbers of displaced persons in Colombia, but despite this fact, it leads the internally displaced populace of Latin America at an all time high of recorded internally displaced populations

(IDMC, 2010).

The current political atmosphere in Latin America revolves around either current, or the recent end of, armed conflicts. The source of the conflicts was primarily the legacy of Spanish colonization, including fighting over control of land, resources and government by a small, elite and unrepresentative potion of the population. At first this group was made of the spanish elite over from Europe. After the independance of many latin American countries, it was the group of european desendants born in Latin America. The removal of the Spanish nobility as the top of the hierarchy left Latin America with a large power vaccum needing to be filled. Primarily this void was filled by the extreme militarization of many of the governments within Latin America. The effect of colonization was to create a great disbalance of power that was to continue to be repeated into the 21st century, with constant power struggles and the over turning of many governments. This has left Latin America today with weaker, developing governments who continue to recover from the wars and revolutions that plagued the region throughout the 20th century (IDMC, 2000 & Hillman,2005).

As a result, those who have been taken over, or forced from their homes during the conflicts of the 20th century have primarily been those of lower socioeconomic status. And while in every country except Colombia, these conflicts have mostly died out, the internally displaced populations remain. These lower class individuals continue to be ignored, or overlooked by the reforming governments and are continually denied access to basic human rights such as healthcare, education and housing(IDMC, 2010).

To look at more specific sources, causes and barriers that have resulted in internally displaced populations; we are going to look at 4 countries in Latin America with some of the highest levels of internally displaced populations.

Mexico: The Current Situation . . . .

In Mexico, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) reports that between 5000 and 8000 people are displaced in the Chiapas, a state located in southwestern Mexico along the border of Guatemala, alone as a result of the Zapatista revolutionary movement. This has been occurring in the surrounding states of Oaxaca and Guererro as well, although no official numbers have been recorded as of yet. (p. 1) As a result, there is an overwhelming amount of human rights violations occurring in these areas, such as being targets of violence by the paramilitary forces, as well as limited access to basic needs such as water (pp. 6,7).

Women are one of the most negatively affected groups as a result of displacement. A December 2009 report from the IDMC states that women continue to live in "extreme poverty" and are unable to find jobs to support the family, or jobs that they do find are likely undignified (p. 51). In Chiapas, men often leave the household in search of employment, and the women that remain in the rural areas are left the entire responsibility for themselves and their children. As seen in the documentary Alonso's Dream that we saw in class, the man may stay with the family and attempt to continue to support the family. The family may remain together but the unfortunate consequence is often poverty due to no land ownership, or land that is not sufficient to farm enough food in order to feed the family. Urban displacement can also marginalize the women, as stated in the same IDMC report (2009). Women in the cities, and are single heads of households, do not have access to education or jobs, (unemployment at a high in 2009) and often resort to prostitution to make money and feed their family (p. 7).

Zapatista Support Youtube Video

"The Mexican Human Rights Diagnosis of 2003 concluded that IDPs “are among the most unprotected groups because they generally lack means of subsistence and legal mechanisms to claim and enjoy their rights. Given their invisibility, they face a high risk of abuse, exploitation and threats to their life” (IDMC translation, UNOHCHR, 2003)". (p. 6)

Guatemala: The current situation . . .

According to the IDMC Website (2010), between 500 000 and 1.5 million people were displaced during the civil war that lasted up until 1996. Many indigenous Maya fled due to the threat of genocides that had already occurred between 1979 and 1981, as Kent (2006) reported (p. 200). Although this situation was apparently resolved after signing the "Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace" in 1996, violence continued well into the first part of 2000 (Kent, 2006, p.200). The truth to this is also reported in the article by Martinez (2002), Peace as a Masquerade, where her experience in Guatemala showed that the "death squads" and "Civilian Self-Defense Patrols" were still very present in Guatemala. While this threat still exits, these internally displaced persons will continue to be displaced, especially given the government's current position denying any displaced persons, as detailed in the next paragraph.

The situation for internally displaced persons may seem just as, if not more dire, in Guatemala than in Mexico. This may be partially due to the fact that there seems to be an unwillingness of the government to recognize this group, as mentioned on the IDMC (2010) website, and also because there continues to be internal conflict inevitably causing the ongoing situation of internal displacements of the indigenous groups. The last estimate as reported by a national IDP group on the IDMC website (2010), was a that of up to 1 million IDPs in May 2006. Majority of those were indigenous groups. Similar to Mexico, it is lack of respect of human rights that continues to be a problem for the IDPs in Guatemala. The IDMC reported that prior to the 2009 world food crisis, already 16 percent of the population could not even meet proper nutrition (IDMC Violence and inequality still blocking solutions for IDPs. p. 6).

Columbia: The current situation...

Columbia is probably one of the most important countries to consider when talking about displaced populations in Latin America, as it is home to the second largest population of internally displaced populations in the world. In fact it is second only to the Sudan in numbers, with a total of approximately 2 650 000 – 4 360 000 displaced citizens. This is approximately 5.7-9.3% of the Colombian population (IDMC,2010). Exact numbers in the case of Colombia can be difficult to pin down due to the extreme violence and security issues in the region, leading many displaced people to fail to make their status known for fear of retribution.

The cause of the displacement in Colombia is the result of almost forty years of conflict going on between several groups within the country, including the military, paramilitary groups and guerilla war fare groups. Two of these groups are the official Colombian military and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) (IDMC,2010). The displacement of people in Columbia is blamed primarily on the military strategies of these groups which often center on the civilian populations specifically as targets, causing the death and displacement of millions of innocent bystanders (IDMC,2010 & Pecaut, 2000).

The displaced populace of Colombia is comprised primarily of women and children. 36% of displaced persons in Colombia are under the age of 18 and 46% of the overall households being displaced through these armed conflicts are headed by women with an average rate of children being 5.6 per household – with the average non displaced family having only 4 children to care for per household. So not only are women attempting to care for their families on their own, but they are also caring for more children on their own than the average family in Colombia. To add to the difficulties of these families, it is has also been shown that 18% of displaced families also hold members who are physically disabled (IDMC,2010).

Other groups largely affected by the displacement of conflict are the indigenous and Afro-Colombian population. The majorities of both of these populations have either been displaced or have been affected by displacement. The reason for this is that indigenous lands tend to be highly valued and coveted among the paramilitary and military groups. However displacement also has a particularly adverse affect on these groups as well. While most displaced people in Colombia tend to move towards urban centers, when the indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups are displaced, forcing them into urban centers is forcing them into an environment that they are highly unfamiliar with, where the spoken language is foreign to them and where they suffer higher levels of discrimination (IDMC,2010 & Pecaut, 2000).

The primary issue that appears to be faced by the displaced population of Colombia are the continued security threats coming from all areas of the country. There seems to be a continual threat of being caught yet again, in the cross fires between the military and, now illegal, paramilitary groups. Young women also are at particular risk for sexual abuse and exploitation (IDMC,2010 & Kett, 2005).

The fact of the matter though, is that problems come from the lack of recognition IDP’s receive within their countries. Once they are forced out of their homes, displaced persons will continue to struggle to access things like health care, affordable housing, employment opportunities and many basic rights. While there are many NGO organizations set up within Colombia as well as governmental assistance, the assistance is short lived and insufficient. While the Colombian government does technically have a developed and advanced body of legislature in regards to the protection of internally displaced people, it has been found that the legislation fails to be implemented on the local level(IDMC,2010).

Peru: the current situation . . .

IDMC displacement map of Peru
IDMC displacement map of Peru

The number of displaced people within Peru is approximately 150 000 or .5% of the population. However, this number has decreased from the previous numbers estimated for displaced persons of over 1 million at the height of problems in Peru in the 1990s and it is also thought that the remainder of displaced persons in this region are primarily due to how long they have been displaced (IDMC,2010). The source or cause of displacement in Peru is similar to that in Colombia, conflict between the government and revolutionary forces between the years 1980 to 200.The conflict was between the Peruvian Armed forces and the allied self defense groups as they fought off two groups called Shining Path and TupacAmaru Revolutionary Movement. The Shining Path was originally a political group fighting for land reforms and social and economic rights. However, Shining Path soon fell into a system of Maoist totalitarianism and began terrorizing the civilian population as a military tactic, eventually making them responsible for the most appalling human rights violations throughout the 20 year conflict. In the beginning these attacks and violations, such as kidnap, rape, torture and destruction of property went ignored by the Peruvian Government. However in December of 1982, the government stepped in and placed 9 of their provinces under a military command. The military at this point would then step into the conflict to become responsible for approximately 28% of the murders as well as the violations of human rights and international law violations would occur throughout the conflict. The violations performed by both of these groups caused many civilians to then create self defense patrols which as the conflict progressed would actually team up with either the military or the insurgent groups and be responsible for even more violence and human rights violations. During the early 1990s it is estimated that because of this violence 500 000 to 1 000 000 people were forced from their homes. The conflict eventually came to an end in 2000 and a new democratic government under Valentin Paniagua ws phased in, however the IDP's remained in the country and the current 150 000 internally displaced persons in Peru are an overlooked and uncared for aftermath of these conflicts (IDMC,2010).

The displaced population in Peru fits in with the stereotypical type of population found in internally displaced populations across the world, with the majority of the displaced being women, children, indigenous and rural peoples. To begin with a rather shocking example in 2004 one estimate claimed that there were 43 000 orphans residing in Peru as a result of the conflicts in the preceding 20 years. In another area called Puerto Ocopa, 50% of the population in this area were children and 70 of these children were orphans. Large portions of the population are also widows, approximately 13.3% of the displaced population to be precise, who much like in Colombia are also now the heads of the majority of displaced families in Peru. If these women are not widows, they have often lost their husbands in the conflict through violence, being forced out of their homes and husbands being forced in a different direction or forced into the conflict, or abducted or just plain missing. In one area of Peru this is reflected when looking at a sample of 180 people, 118 people in the sample were women (IDMC,2010).

The other primary group represented in the displaced populace of Peru are the indigenous and rural populations. Of the displaced persons in Peru, 70% came from rural and indigenous communities, with only 20% coming from urban areas and only 10% coming from high socioeconomic status (IDMC,2010).

The IDP's in Peru face problems in particular with the current reform of the government. There have been several promises of governmental reform and reparations for the damages caused by the 20 year conflict. However, the majority of these reparations seem to be more general in nature with little to specifically acknowledge and aide the currently displaced populace. However, one step in the right direction was brought in under the form of a registration act, allowing those who have received damages or who have been displaced to register with the government. However, as of 2008, only 5000 of the estimated 150 000 have registered in under the program and it continues to fail to be properly integrated into the reparations programs in the government (IDMC,2010).

Why Should North America Care?

North America needs to care because it is countries like the United States and Canada which can have a profound effect on the implementation of equal human rights in countries like Mexico, Columbia and Bolivia. There is a lot of information and literature that can be found about internally displaced persons. It is actually quite overwhelming while trying to sift through all of the websites, reports, and statistics. There seems to be a lot of websites detailing relief efforts, such as the Red Cross and even the Canadian government website. The unfortunate aspect is that the reports from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre show that these efforts do not appear to be enough at this time. More still needs to be done in assisting these people in accessing basic needs and resolving the conflicts that continue to be present in these areas. The plight of these people is important to recognize in North America because it is through efforts exerted to pressure these governments into the application of human rights, that the realization of human rights can be achieved.

When Turkey was attempting to enter into the European community, the European community placed certain restrictions on who could enter. Among these restrictions were that each country had to meet the international standards for human rights within their population (Celik, 2005). If something like this were to be attempted between North America and Latin American countries it may be possible to achieve things like economic and social stability and benefits within and between both regions.Including the equal application of human rights across cultures, countries and classes. The reason for bringing up the example of Turkey attempting to enter the European community is that it displays the possible influence that North America could be applying to something as good and vital as human rights. This is as opposed to current American influences such as the School of the Americas, as seen in lectures in Latin American Studies 203, training future military dictators, or their attempts to reduce the drug trade through the fumigation of coca crops which has actually caused further displacement and deprivation of human rights in regions like Colombia (IDMC,2010).

To move away from idealistic thoughts of what influence North America could have on these nations, let us look at the influence that North America does have on helping the internally displaced peoples. According the united nations security council, it is the responsibility of the government of a country to apply for international aide to assist with refugees and IDP’s if they are unable to provide equal human rights to those of this status. This is how current NGO organizations like the United Nations Refugee agency or UNHR are able to enter into countries like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Guatemala to provide aide and to set up relief camps for these people (IDMC & UNHCR, 2010).

Tent villiage in Colombia set up by the UNHCR
Tent villiage in Colombia set up by the UNHCR

With continuing pressure, assistance and influence from countries like Canada and the USA, it will be possible to further the relief of these individuals and to help end the conflicts that are causing the mass amounts of refugees and IDP’s.


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