Given the increasing urbanization of persons experiencing forced displacement, it should be clear that the answer to this question is yes. Indeed, in 2017 alone, the number of new persons displaced because of armed conflicts almost doubled from 6.9 to million to 11.8 million, reaching an estimated 40 million people worldwide living in conditions of forced displacement. But contrary to popular belief, most internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside in urban areas rather than in refugee camps. Cities are now the main destinations where displaced people seek refuge, and at the same time, because of civil conflicts taking place in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, they are also places from which an increasing number of persons are forced to flee. In view of this, it is worth considering: what are the instruments through which urban-related needs of displaced persons and other victims of armed conflicts can be met? Great interest is given in current post-conflict processes to the right to truth, memory of the victims as well as to criminal justice. Important as they are, there is also a need to reflect on transformative means of reparation that post-conflict processes can make available to those victims of war who experience protracted displacement in urban centers.
The main focus of those involved in bringing an end to the plight of forcibly displaced persons is to achieve so-called durable solutions as it was suggested 20 years ago, when the UN adopted the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Crucial to this approach is the responsibility of national authorities to provide the means to enable displaced persons’ voluntary return, their relocation to the places where they have found refuge or their settlement elsewhere within their own country. Nevertheless, when it comes to protracted conflicts or displacement caused by state actors, the pressures on local authorities to reduce the displacement figures might lead them to privilege other solutions rather than to facilitate their local settlement. This despite the fact that, even in contexts where peace agreements or ceasefires are being implemented, forced displacement still occurs. To this should be added that urban displacement is often invisible as displaced persons usually mingle with poor locals, which might be used by local authorities to avoid granting them the IDP status and to disregard displaced people’s particular needs. However, when the conditions surrounding forcibly displaced persons’ urbanization are those such as lack of political recognition and undifferentiated socio-economic policies, it creates additional pressure on the already scarce resources and social services available to the local population. In cities of the global South where growing urbanization has been shaped by informality and has often occurred with poor urban planning, the steady flow of displaced people into poor areas might exacerbate the demand for social housing and might overload existing public infrastructure.
In fact, until 2011, invisibility and poverty trap used to be terms employed by Colombian human rights defenders to describe the conditions experienced by internally displaced people, especially as during ex-president Uribe’s rule (2002-2010), their urbanization was systematically accompanied by the denial of official IDP recognition. At that time Uribe claimed that what Colombia was facing was a combination of a terrorist menace with a massive economic migration, and by deploying such an argument his government turned a blind eye to displaced people’s condition of victim. In line with Uribe’s denial, governing authorities did not go further than offering displaced persons minimum humanitarian assistance while overlooking their responsibility to provide them with the means to find a place to rebuild their lives and guarantees of non-repetition.
Against this climate of denial and marginalization, in 2008, women’s displaced organizations in coalition with feminists NGOs were able to make a dent in Uribe’s politics, as they resorted to the Constitutional Court and succeeded in getting passed a gender-sensitive ruling, the so-called Auto 092, on the rights of women forcibly displaced by the conflict. The Judicial Decision 092 states that due to historical discrimination of women, forced displacement has a disproportionate impact on their lives and called the Colombian State to adopt measures to specifically prevent conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence before, during and after displacement. Whereas underlining and addressing the risk of re-victimization, Auto 092 compels Colombian authorities to implement positive actions in order to tackle social, cultural and economic inequalities that allow conflict-related violence against displaced women to occur. In so doing, Auto 092 stands as an example of transformative justice as it goes beyond a focus on redressing civil and political rights violations.
Indeed, in their article “Exposing the Gendered Myth of Post-Conflict Transition,” Rees and Chinkin point to the timeliness and appropriateness of jurisprudence that, like Decision 092, binds the victims’ right to reparation to the so-called second-generation human rights:
The problem is that economic and social rights have long been regarded, especially in the global North and thus by those who are lead players in many peace processes, as non-justiciable and supported by only weak enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. Access to appropriate and affordable health services, housing, education, social security and employment are regarded as “benefits” or as services … The myth of their non-justiciability has been broken by the jurisprudence of constitutional courts in South Africa, Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and by the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in May 2008 (Rees and Chinkin 2015: 1220).
Unfortunately, reality does not always match the law. Despite jurisprudential developments such as Decision 092, Colombian displaced women needed to persist in their struggle to obtain recognition of the victim status of displaced people, to convince the Colombian government to seriously address human rights violations and to provide them with reparations that tackle historical inequalities that make them vulnerable to conflict-related violence.
In 2011, the newly elected president Juan Manuel Santos made a clear departure from Uribe’s negationist rhetoric by recognizing the internal armed conflict and passing the so-called Victims and Land Restitution Law. As a transitional justice framework, the Victims Law is not at odds with a transformative approach, as it seeks to offer a comprehensive redress of structural inequalities and explicitly states its intention to provide guarantees of non-repetition (art. 182). Yet, instead of local integration, the major focus of the Victims’ Law and its implementation is on the stabilization of displaced people, whether through their return or through their resettlement elsewhere within the country (art. 73). Hence, inter-alia, the Victims’ Law establishes procedures to facilitate access to land titles and, by giving priority to displaced women, takes into account the informality of land tenure reflected in the lack of enforceable land titles along with gender-related practices and cultural biases; for they are both tremendous obstacles that hinder rural women’s right to enjoy equal access to land and thereby make them more vulnerable to forced displacement.
However, what has thus become clear through the implementation of this law is that, in order to be a durable solution, the stabilization of displaced persons by means of return-oriented programs should be considered through the lenses of a comprehensive sustainability.
Return-oriented programs and the challenges of defeating impunity
Concerns about the limitations of the Victims’ Law and its program of land restitution to achieve their goals in the midst of the war have proved to be real difficulties. For instance, according to the report “A Land Title Is Not Enough” published by Amnesty International, most economic and political elites who commissioned and benefited from forced displacement have avoided being brought to justice. The interweaving of these structures with neo-paramilitary groups has taken over illegal and legal economies that have fed into the Colombian armed conflict and has not ceased to cause additional displacement. Of equal concern, as the 2015 report of the Working Group on Women and Armed Conflict brought to light, is the growing use of gender and sexual violence against Afro-Colombian women who have acted as social leaders in the process of land restitution. Following the peace agreement signed in 2016, the majority of FARC’s militias demobilized and the number of homicides in Colombia has significantly decreased. However, the number of killings of human right defenders, including land restitution leaders, has simply increased.
Colombian transitional context exemplifies a dramatic example of the difficulties of drawing a line between conflict and post-conflict. Given such a landscape, it is likely that the most pressing endeavors to achieve sustainable solutions would oscillate between providing security to those displaced persons willing to return and recognizing that, for a large portion of this population who live in protracted displacement, it will simply be unfair to condemn them to an indefinite wait until the restitution of their lands is feasible.
Stabilization: but not without transformation
A revision of the UN Guiding Principles on Forced Displacement issued in 2010 provides specific criteria to evaluate whether a durable solution for displacement has actually been achieved. Importantly, as this framework highlights, an actual stabilization is not limited to the restoration of the conditions in which a person was living before the displacement. It must take into account that even when an armed conflict has ended, displaced people “commonly continue to have residual needs and human rights concerns linked to their displacement.” Therefore, as with transitional justice measures aimed at providing reparation, the process of stabilization should be seen as an opportunity to address discrimination e inequalities that allowed the occurrence of forced displacement or might enable further victimization.
For instance, when relocated in areas other than their places of origin, forcibly displaced persons can face difficulties to access health services due to the lack of registration or adequate documentation. Also, when trying to find a job, they can face discriminations based on their relatedness to the armed conflict. Because of their political affiliation, they might too be victims of hate crimes, and they can experience discrimination on racial, gender or ethnic basis when trying to rent a dwelling or access social services.
Published in the so-called Framework on Durable Solutions, the revision of the Guiding Principles sets eight criteria of evaluation, with the understanding that they are interlinked and overlapping: long-term safety and security; adequate standards of living; access to livelihoods; restoration of housing, land and property; access to or replacement of documentation; family reunification; participation in public affairs; and access to effective remedies and justice. But if we aim at embracing these criteria, we should look for how their implementation participates in bringing about social reconciliation and gender-just sustainable peace. Do options of livelihoods available for displaced people reproduce sexual division of labor? Do women’s livelihoods or jobs allow them possibilities in time and space to exercise political participation? Are the means to access housing failing to recognize non-normative families? Do housing solutions for displaced persons provide real chances to overcome gender-based exclusions? Are processes of public apologies and mechanisms of justice such as truth tribunals being gender-sensitive, or are they encouraging or perpetuating patterns of sexism or the patriarchal relation women-protected/male-protector? These are only a few of the questions that we should address if we are committed to mainstreaming gender when seeking to provide displaced persons with transformative durable solutions.
Housing: More Than a Roof over One’s Head
Achieving a suitable solution meeting the above-mentioned standards not only involves ensuring victims’ enjoyment of their human rights but, in doing so, also entails challenges in development and post-conflict reconstruction, including the building of physical, social and cultural infrastructure. This process in Colombia has mostly been referred to as to bring the state into those rural regions where for decades the only government presence has not been other than the military. Building social infrastructure in rural territories has been a claim of Colombian feminist movements since a long time. However, important as it is, it should not mean losing sight of the fact that for a large portion of the displaced population, who have lived far from their lands for almost decades, return might not be a feasible solution.
Despite the urban segregation that displaced persons experience, in Colombia women are less likely to return. This is due, in many cases, to the better access to education and health services for their children available in urban centers or to the fact that they have created new family ties. Thus, difficulties related to urban segregation or discrimination they might endure pale in comparison with the uncertainties of returning to areas where peace and war still overlap.
In spite of this, the main focus of Santos’s Victims’ Law is the return of displaced persons, and therefore it does not include housing restitution but instead access to housing subsidies. In that sense, the Victims’ Law fails to comply with the criteria of return sustainability mentioned above which, like the Pinheiro Principles, put forward that forcibly displaced persons “have the right to have restored to them any housing” of which they were deprived. However, as it has been demonstrated by urban scholars, for a displaced person, the probability that housing subsidies crystallize in an actual purchase of a property is extremely low. Especially, because the conditions of poverty they face and their lack of regular salary income make them ineligible to access a bank loan.
Over time, the Santos government decided to include some IDP families among the beneficiaries of its Free Housing Program. Nonetheless, the experience of Colombia in the implementation of social housing programs, and especially as a means of providing reparation for the victims of human rights violations, reflects similar difficulties to those faced by other global South societies engaged in transitional justice processes. For instance, in their research on post-apartheid South Africa, Parnell and Pieterse hint to some axes of the urban question which, if left unaddressed or ignored, might risk victims’ rights to the city being deferred:
The ongoing focus on electoral and participatory democracy as well as on protecting other individual rights (freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression, etc.) may marginalize new efforts to advance 2nd generation socio-economic rights. These are achieved through the sustained delivery of affordable urban services to households and neighborhoods (not individuals), and through viable service administration and finances, not just through infrastructural investment (Parnell and Pieterse 2010: 148).
Parnell and Pieterse touch on how weak decentralization, inadequate institutional support as well as the imperatives of neoliberal globalizations, such as privatization, play a role in determining the uses of land, limiting the availability of affordable land for developing social housing, and blocking the possibilities of offering subsidized or free services for the poor (electricity, water, sanitation). Other urban challenges such as rigid or outdated zoning plans can restrict development of social housing and social infrastructure, and prevent the evolution of dormitory areas to mixed-use neighborhoods. Those conditions are increasingly seen as requirements for sustainable housing as they prevent risks such as neighborhood deterioration, and further informality.
A combination of these difficulties have been experienced in Bogotá, the Colombian city where the majority of IDP live, as between 2012-2015 the city administration attempted to allocate social housing units for internally displaced persons. But specifically, the case of Bogotá exemplifies the misalignment between the politics prompted at national level and their implementation at local/municipal level. For example, Juan Carlos Flórez, an independent local politician, asserts that the current Bogotá’s administration of Enrique Peñalosa “does not at all comply with meeting victims’ right to housing.” Indeed, from an estimated 500 thousand victims of the armed conflict who live in Bogotá and who have no access to decent housing, only 4 thousand were included in Bogota’s development plan. Like picturing a recipe for disaster, Flórez explains that no free houses will be allocated to displaced people, and furthermore that the institutional support provided to access credit is so weak that it is working to preclude any chance displaced people might have to effectively gain access to the social housing units supposedly allocated to them.
Bogotá as other urban societies of the global South cannot elude the requirements posed by global competitiveness in order to play a role in the global economy. However, for those facing democratic transition, to provide transformative comprehensive reparation to the victims is an essential responsibility if they are aiming at social reconciliation, the building of sustainable peace and at not condemning the victims of forced displacement to become the new urban poor.
Sonia Garzon-Ramirez received her PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest. Her area of study includes the intersections between feminist theory, transitional justice, post-colonial urban studies and critical race theory. Her current research focuses on societies of the global South experiencing democratic or post-conflict transitions. It explores questions concerned with how oppressed populations negotiate and struggle for achieving spatial justice and the role of urban spatial politics in enabling their enjoyment of the right to the city.