Promoting Recovery and Resilience for Internally Displaced Persons: Lessons from Colombia

Ana Maria Ibanez, Andres Moya, and Andrew Velasquez

Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 38, Issue 3 (2023), pp. 595-624 


This paper discusses the dynamics and consequences of internal displacement in Colombia, and the legal and policy responses to protect and assist IDPs. In 2020, Colombia had the largest population of IDPs in the world, estimated at 8.2 million people, equivalent to 16 percent of the Colombian population and 17 percent of IDPs worldwide. 

The authors’ analysis is guided by an asset-based approach to poverty traps, which highlights how IDPs’ vulnerability to chronic poverty is increased by the loss of economic, social, and psychological assets. 

Main points: 

  • The number of IDPs and geographical scope of internal displacement has increased substantially. The geographical scope of internal displacement has increased from 3 percent of municipalities to all municipalities in the country over the last two decades. 
  • Most IDPs are victims of both forced displacement and violence. Most forced displacement in Colombia (87 percent in 2004) is due to direct exposure to violence rather than preventive movements to avoid victimization. Violence may include direct threats, murder or attempted murder, kidnappings, sexual violence, confrontations between armed groups, and massacres. Impacts of displacement on wellbeing are smaller for those who were displaced preventively, possibly because IDPs were better able to prepare by selling or protecting assets, or by mobilizing their social networks. 
  • Most IDPs migrate as a household directly to their destination, frequently close to their areas of origin. Household members usually migrate together. Most households migrate directly to their destination, which half of the time is within the same department (state or provincial authority), and in 18 percent of cases is within the same municipality, enabling them to protect assets and social networks in places of origin. 
  • Displacement occurs gradually to outskirts of urban areas. Displacement does not occur en masse but gradually through the displacement of one or a few households at a time to the peripheries of urban areas. The IDP population has similar characteristics to the poor and most vulnerable in Colombia in both rural and urban areas; IDP households tend to be large with high dependency rates, low human capital, overrepresentation of female household heads, and overrepresentation of ethnic minorities. 
  • Colombia has developed progressive legislation to assist IDPs. Laws and policies have been developed through a trial-and-error process with involvement of government, international organizations, academics, and victim advocacy groups. The latest legislation (Law 1448 of 2011) defines the various stages of IDP interventions from transition to termination of IDPs’ legal status and defines two mechanisms to compensate IDPs for their losses (indemnities and land restitution). In 2015, government defined the criteria for termination of IDPs’ legal status: (i) once the rights of the household, grouped into seven dimensions, are fulfilled; (ii) when the household’s monthly income is 1.5 times the poverty line and the rights to health, education, identification, and family reunification are fulfilled; or (iii) when an individual voluntarily requests to be withdrawn from the victims registry. 
  • IDPs are more vulnerable to poverty, and this vulnerability has persisted over time despite the implementation of a comprehensive and progressive policy framework. In the first three months following displacement, IDPs lose 95 percent of their annual income per equivalent adult. Over time, income levels slowly increase but do not recover—income losses were still over 60 percent relative to pre-displacement levels when IDPs were displaced more than a year. The income shock coupled with lack of access to formal risk-sharing mechanisms and disruption of social networks, results in substantial losses in consumption. In the first three months following displacement, consumption after humanitarian aid falls by 24 percent relative to pre-displacement levels, but as humanitarian aid declines, consumption losses increase further to 36 percent after a year. 
  • Multidimensional asset losses undermine IDPs’ productive capacities, trapping them in chronic and persistent poverty. IDP asset losses include productive, physical, human, social, and psychological assets:
    Productive and physical assets: Most IDPs abandon lands, agricultural investments, livestock, and other productive assets, or are coerced to sell them below market prices. 
    Human assets: IDPs lose human capital, which inhibits access to labor markets, through two mechanisms: (a) IDPs are frequently displaced from rural to urban areas, tend to be less educated and literate than other urban poor, and have agricultural skills that are not useful in urban labor markets; and (b) conflict and forced displacement increase demographic vulnerability due to loss of working-age members, increase in dependency rates, and higher rates of female-headed households. These disadvantages lead to higher rates of unemployment and higher rates of employment in informal, low-skilled, and low-paying jobs. 
    Social assets: IDPs lose social networks due to conflict and displacement, impeding their ability to overcome market failures and smooth consumption through social assets. 
    Psychological assets: Forced displacement takes a toll on IDPs’ mental health, with consequences for their capacity to recover. Cognitive and behavioral effects can adversely affect productivity levels, educational attainment, saving and investment decisions, and behavioral biases. 
  • Intergenerational effects. In Colombia, forced displacement has been shown to have positive effects on school enrolment and completion of IDP children compared to children who remained in conflict-affected rural areas. However, IDP children have lower school enrolment and completion rates compared to children of urban poor, which translates into poorer educational attainment and labor market outcomes. Conflict and displacement in early childhood can also affect children’s development and future wellbeing and can lead to intergenerational effects. 

The authors summarize the evidence on the effectiveness of policies and programs to support IDPs, including:  

  • Registries are important for quantifying and targeting assistance and can also address supply-side and demand-side constraints that can hinder registration and access to services. Colombia’s State Registry for Displaced Population provides essential data to inform the design and implementation IDP policy. The registration process is demand-driven, with IDPs identifying themselves and declaring the circumstances of their displacement. Once claims are verified, IDPs are registered and become eligible to receive assistance. However, information constraints have still prevented vulnerable IDPs and those in isolated areas from registering and accessing benefits. 
  • Including IDPs in standard social protection programs may be an efficient mechanism to expand coverage and reach larger numbers of IDPs. The Colombian government supports IDPs with social services designed for poor and vulnerable households, including subsidized health care and education, and conditional cash transfers. Conditional cash transfers have been found to have positive effects on children’s education, health, and nutrition, especially for young children, but had no effect on children’s malnutrition rates, or on household wellbeing, household income, economic independence, or self-sufficiency. However, by not incorporating the psychological effects of forced displacement and how they affect socioeconomic dynamics, standard income-generation programs may be ineffective. 
  • Programs specifically targeting IDPs can address the specific characteristics and vulnerabilities of IDPs, including programs that support reparations and land restitution. For example, a USAID program that provided a one-time cash transfer, job-training, and a short-term contract with private firms had positive impacts on labor income and consumption, but effects dissipated after the program ended. Semillas de Apego, a community-based psychosocial program for primary caregivers of young children in communities affected by violence or forced displacement, was found to have positive effects on maternal mental health, childmother interactions, and early childhood development. A review of forgiveness and reconciliation clinics found they led to improvements in the mental health of IDPs that led to improvements in their social connectedness and prospects of life trajectories. Indemnities, a wealth transfer equivalent on average to over three times the victim’ income, have been shown to expand households’ permanent income. Participation in land restitution programs is also associated with greater interpersonal trust. 

The authors conclude that development assistance for IDPs is important to mitigate the negative consequences of forced migration, which can be intergenerational. Policies to compensate for the negative shock of displacement need to address the loss of productive, physical, human, social, and psychological assets.