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What displaced Colombians living abroad think about the peace efforts

University students and supporters of the peace deal protest during a rally in Bogotá, Colombia. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

What displaced Colombians living abroad think about the peace efforts

The peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group was rejected by less than a 0.5 percent margin in a referendum on Oct. 2.

This outcome shocked the world and defied the expectations of most external observers. The signed agreement to end the violence seemed all but complete, so its rejection by referendum makes the future of peace efforts uncertain.

The Colombian conflict has cost more than 220,000 lives over half a century, and has forced seven million people to flee their homes. Colombia is the leading source of refugees in Latin America and has the most internally displaced people in the world, surpassing Syria in 2015.

As a conflict resolution professor in the U.S. and director of a peacebuilding NGO in Ecuador, I have conducted dozens of interviews and hundreds of surveys with Colombian refugees in six provinces of Ecuador over more than a decade. This research provides a useful context for analyzing the effects of the Colombian peace process and the rejection of the current deal on neighboring countries and the region.

Elevating the voices of those in Colombia and abroad who have been most affected by the conflict could help the rest of the population in Colombia to relate to their suffering, and internalize the cost of continued war.

Rejection of the peace deal

Several factors led to the failure of the peace deal. Key reasons included government overconfidence, low turnout and, especially, anger at the perception that FARC was gaining impunity and costly benefits after years of violence. President Juan Manuel Santos was the main proponent of the peace process, but many ordinary Colombians felt he was ignoring or silencing their concerns. His popularity sagged.

Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe after casting his vote for referendum on a peace deal in Bogotá, Colombia. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

The popular ex-president, Alvaro Uribe, was a vocal opponent whose conservative followers demanded greater punishment for the FARC. Both presidents represent major ideological blocs in a polarized country – “yes” and “no” became politicized camps.

The right wing was not the only source of skepticism. Human Rights Watch criticized the deal’s amnesty for government forces who committed human rights abuses. Many victims, civil society groups and displaced Colombians complained about being left out of the negotiations, although “yes” won in nearly all countries where Colombian migrants voted from abroad.

Some were skeptical that the signed agreement would lead to a reduction in the violence in the short and medium term. They argued that elements of the FARC might splinter upon demobilization and join criminal bands or cross borders to neighboring countries, rather than accept the terms of the peace deal.

Voices of Colombians abroad

Only 37 percent of eligible voters in Colombia – and 12 percent of eligible Colombians living in other countries – cast a vote in Sunday’s referendum. This suggests that many felt disenchanted with a process that was far removed from their own needs and interests.

Jorge, a Colombian refugee living in Venezuela, told me last month, “Those of us who are refugees and asylum seekers displaced across borders were absolutely invisible in the peace process by both the Colombian government and the insurgency.”

Earlier this year, I spoke with a woman named María, a member of the International Forum of Colombian Victims. This group is composed of Colombian refugees and other victims who have fled to other countries, and it advocates for a just peace in Colombia. María fled the violence and has been living in Ecuador for several years.

She said illegal paramilitary groups had already started targeting civil society leaders in Colombia for assassination, especially indigenous leaders. They have done so in the past in Ecuador, which means that even in crossing the border, activists’ lives can be in danger.

This raises concerns that civil society activists might be targeted while the peace process is ongoing, and even if an agreement is signed. Some victims and displaced people fear that advocating for alternatives to militarization and for a more just economic model can have deadly consequences. Maria said, “We are not willing to accept with silence and indifference those who think that we can build peace with the same strategies with which we waged war.”

She pointed out that advocacy and coordination of allied networks across borders, including the International Forum of Colombian Victims, is key. Together, they can pressure negotiators to work toward genuine peace and justice that includes protections for victims and other excluded Colombians, including those living abroad. Otherwise, excluded groups will not feel they have a stake in the deal, or may even join spoilers in rejecting it.

Engaging displaced Colombians

In a striking pattern, the regions that were hardest hit by the war registered the highest percentages in favor of the peace deal. These included rural areas in the coast and jungle, as well as Colombians voting from abroad because they had to flee their homes.

Children of Colombian asylum seekers and refugees play during a visit by a UNHCR to Venezuela. REUTERS

The “no” vote was highest in the urban and central regions that had been relatively more insulated from the violence.

I believe these groups need to hear more from each other.

Greater inclusion of victims and excluded groups in the negotiations and public discourse would not only widen the base of the population with a stake in the conflict, but would also help to humanize the costs of continued war.

Cecilia, a Colombian researcher in Quito who is now an Ecuadorian citizen, told me last month after the peace deal was announced: “We don’t build peace only by signing agreements. It is something that we have to work for every day, in our closest relationships.”

Including victims of all of the armed groups might help break the ideological polarization and define a new narrative that everyone has suffered loss and some level of forgiveness is a necessary price for ending the suffering.

My own research focuses on Colombia’s forced migrants living in Ecuador, of whom more than 170,000 have requested asylum since 2000. My surveys of more than 600 Colombians living in six Ecuadorian provinces show that only 9 percent see themselves returning to Colombia within the next five years. This number has not changed much since 2013 as the political negotiations progressed.

Major economic and security investments are needed to create conditions that reassure Colombians abroad that it is safe to come home. A voluntary right to return is also important. Many Colombians have made a new life for themselves abroad, and are worried about being forced to return to a country they no longer consider home.

As Jorge, the refugee in Venezuela, said, “My heart has been in Colombia and my feet are in Venezuela. The hard part is wanting to return and knowing that is not possible for now. But if I went back [to Colombia] tomorrow, I would feel like a stranger in my own land.”

A regional perspective going forward

Colombia’s neighbors are weary of the burden of refugees and cross-border security incursions caused by the conflict. Playing a constructive role in supporting renewed peace efforts could be in their interest.

Ecuador, which is the largest recipient of refugees in Latin America, offered earlier this year to host negotiations between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army, the other major leftist guerrilla group. Virginia Bouvier, a Colombia expert at the United States Institute of Peace, cautions that any agreement would remain an “incomplete peace” as long as the ELN remains mobilized for fighting. A peace process that includes them at the same table would better reflect the range of interests in play.

The United States can also play an active role to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on all sides in Colombia to continue the peace process. Since 2009, the U.S. has given over US$9 billion to Colombia, much of which funded military equipment and training. Now, President Obama proposed $450 million for “Peace Colombia,” the post-accord implementation of peace initiatives. The failure of the peace deal makes the future of this proposal uncertain.

Ex-President Uribe in particular benefited enormously from the U.S. military assistance, and the United States could apply international pressure to hold him to his promise to continue working toward peace after the rejection of the current deal.

The referendum rejecting the deal was a setback for peace, but it creates an opportunity to address the problems of the first deal, especially if FARC and the government remain committed to keep working together and include more voices. If Colombia hopes to revive the peace process, it needs to engage a more representative range of political interests so they have a stake in the success of the outcome.

I believe this should include those who are affected by the conflict but have not had their voices heard. It should also invite external actors, including Ecuador and the United States, to apply leverage, provide resources and help coordinate a regional strategy to find solutions to the transnational aspects of the conflict that cross borders.

The names of interviewees have been changed for their safety.