Moving with risk: Forced displacement and vulnerability to hazards in Colombia

Roger Few, Viviana Ramírez, Maria Teresa Armijos, Lina Andrea Zambrano Hernández, Hazel Marsh

World Development, Volume 144 (2021)


This paper examines the social and spatial processes through which IDPs in Colombia become exposed to environmental hazards in settlement locations. Environmental hazards encompass threats stemming from the physical environment, such as landslides, floods and fire.

The analysis is based on case studies undertaken in 2017 and 2018 in four IDP settlement areas: the city of Manizales in Caldas; the settlements of Caimalito and Galicia in Risaralda; and Cazuca in the municipality of Soacha in Cundinamarca, on the outskirts of Bogota. These four informal settlements are broadly representative of the range of urban and peri-urban IDP sites across Colombia. Each site accommodates a mix of people identifying as Mestizo, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups. A total of 103 sets of interactions took place (24–30 per site) with 138 participants (84 women and 54 men).

Main findings:

  • Many participants had experienced vulnerability (poverty, gender-based violence and environmental hazards) prior to their displacement. These experiences influenced decisions about where to move and how to establish a sense of greater security.
  • The proximate causes of forced displacement included: murder of a family member; sexual violence; occupation of the home by armed groups; verbal threats; forced recruitment of children; armed conflict; and pressure to carry out illicit activities, such as coca cultivation.
  • Most participants were displaced multiple times, moving two to four times in the search for economic opportunities, to evade armed groups, to escape gender-based violence, or because of eviction due to rent arrears or lack of formal rights to land or dwellings.
  • Given their mainly rural origins, participants encountered challenges adapting to lives in peri-urban and urban areas.
  • For many, creating a permanent home was a highly symbolic act, enabling them to break the cycle of repeated displacement.
  • Even in cases where the arrival of displaced families was uncoordinated, the shared experience of ‘land invasion’ and development of informal settlements became a collective project that fostered a degree of community organization.
  • Many participants fear the threat of eviction by authorities. Some households or groups have managed to formalize their settlement and gain legal title to the land on which they have constructed dwellings.
  • Participants emphasized ongoing economic, social and political marginalization that constrains their options. Most had found informal work, e.g. providing street food, cleaning houses, or casual jobs in construction. Many were unsuccessful in claiming government welfare support due to bureaucratic hurdles, fear of disclosing their location, or stigma associated with IDP status.
  • Informal development of settlements, with houses built densely on adverse terrain with narrow walkways, makes them difficult for emergency vehicles to access. Proactive disaster risk reduction to protect the communities from environmental hazards has seldom occurred. The only risk-related government policy formally in operation is to try to enforce evictions of informal settlements. Very few participants had been offered a viable resettlement plan.

The authors conclude that experiences of conflict and displacement have fundamentally shaped the settlement decisions of IDPs. A preoccupation with fleeing conflict, and a perception of risk dominated by the experience of violence meant that avoiding environmental hazards was seldom factored into decisions about where to live and construct improvised homes.