The Colombian government has failed to protect the basic human rights of millions displaced by the country’s armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Displaced families are often denied access to education, emergency healthcare and humanitarian aid.

The families interviewed for the 60-page report, “Displaced and Discarded: The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Bogotá and Cartagena," described fleeing their homes after receiving threats, being subjected to torture, or seeing relatives or neighbors killed. When they flee their communities and seek shelter elsewhere, they may wait weeks or even months for emergency aid, are often denied medical care, and may be unable to enroll their children in schools.

“Displaced families in Colombia are doubly dispossessed,” said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “After armed groups uproot them from their homes, the government then denies them their basic needs.”

Colombia has the world’s largest internal displacement crisis after Sudan. In the last three years alone, more than three million people, over five percent of Colombia’s population, have been forcibly displaced because of the country’s armed conflict. More than half of all displaced persons are children under the age of 18.

Forced displacement is a consequence of Colombia’s armed conflict, but officials in President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s administration frequently describe displaced persons as “economic migrants” and have suggested that directing assistance to internally displaced persons discriminates against other poor Colombians. Uribe’s government has promoted return to home communities as its principal response to internal displacement, even though safe return is not possible in many areas.

While Colombia is one of a handful of countries that have enacted legislation to protect the internally displaced, the registration process for these benefits can be confusing and cumbersome. Only half of those who register actually receive humanitarian assistance, sometimes after waiting two to three months. For those who do receive aid, it is limited in most cases to three months.

Displaced children are entitled to attend schools in their new communities, but some are asked to produce school records or forms of identification they no longer possess. Others are denied enrollment because schools have no room for them. In many cases, the matriculation fees and related costs of schooling prevent many of them from attending.

Displaced families should be able to receive emergency care, but they are often turned away when they seek it because hospitals have no incentive to provide services for which they will never receive payment. Those who are enrolled in the subsidized healthcare system must still pay for medications, which are beyond the reach of the incomes of many displaced families.

By January 2004, the government’s system for assisting displaced persons was in such a crisis that the Colombian Constitutional Court declared it to be in a “state of unconstitutional affairs.” The court ordered the government to take corrective measures within one year. But many displaced families have not seen the benefit of these measures. In September 2005, the court found that the steps taken by the government to comply with its ruling were insufficient both in terms of resources and institutional will.

Human Rights Watch called on Colombian authorities to implement the Constitutional Court's decision fully. They should ensure that displaced families receive emergency humanitarian aid without delay, extending coverage beyond the usual three-month period prescribed by Colombian law. The subsidized health system should provide displaced persons with medications, specialized consultations, and improved access to health information, including information on sexual and reproductive health.

The Colombian government should also ensure that displaced children are not prevented from attending classes because they cannot produce required identification, lack uniforms, or are unable to pay school fees and related costs, Human Rights Watch said.