Displaced and invisible in Colombia
Older people who have been displaced in Colombia's long-running civil war are among the most vulnerable, yet often remain invisible in the humanitarian response provided by government and non-government agencies.
Don Bernardino is a 71-year-old farmer from south-western Colombia. He and his wife were forced to abandon their land and their way of life in late 2009 after an armed conflict took place near their property. He now lives in Cali with his daughter.
"We lived in tranquility on our farm where I raised and educated my children. We lived on what we grew on the farm. We had a beautiful banana plantation and sugar cane, fruit, chocolate, beans and yuca. I was forced to leave against my will.
"We went straight to Cali to our daughter, who has her own difficulties because her daughter has special needs," he says.
Uprooted by civil war
Don Bernardino is just one of thousands of people aged over 60 who have been uprooted by Colombia's decade-long civil war. It is difficult to ascertain the precise percentage of older people who have been forcibly displaced by the armed conflict. This is partly because information collected by authorities and organisations is not sufficiently disaggregated by age.
Most older displaced people, like Don Bernardino, are rural farmers of indigenous or Afro-Colombian descent. Those who flee to the cities generally suffer the most from cultural upheaval, loss of livelihoods and assets, deteriorating health, and break-up of families.
Many older displaced people take on care of grandchildren because their parents have moved away or been killed. In the city of Cali, more than a third of older people receiving assistance from the voluntary organisation, Fundación Paz y Bien (Peace and Wellbeing Foundation) arrive with children in their care. Most are grandmothers, with an average of three children.
Hunger and despair
A range of humanitarian assistance and other forms of social protection exists to support displaced people in Colombia. The government provides three months of emergency support to people who become displaced.
In exceptional circumstances this may be extended for another three months. It is usually older people who are eligible for an extension because of the difficulties they face in re-establishing their livelihoods.
The poorest older people are eligible to receive a small, social (non-contributory) pension equivalent to a maximum of US$35 a month. A supplementary food programme also exists. However, the programmes are mutually exclusive - people cannot receive both.
Many older people do not receive either. Less than a quarter of the older population classified as living in difficult and vulnerable receive either allowance.
On top of that, the pension can be extremely difficult for displaced older people to access. The pension is delivered through municipal governments.
An older person who has moved to another municipality must first cancel their registration from the list of pension recipients in the municipality from which they have been forcibly displaced, and then register in the municipality of reception.
HelpAge International's ECHO-funded twelve month project in Cali from 2009 to 2010 has reinforced the evidence that many older displaced people are unable to claim these benefits, and are living a life of hunger, disorientation and despair.
No special attention
Lack of data broken down by age is a key contributory factor to displaced older people's neglect. Lack of awareness of their rights and practical difficulties in claiming them compound the problem.
"Life can get very complicated for older people who have to move about with small grandchildren," said a local government representative in the city of El Valle.
"On top of this, many older people are illiterate, which hinders access to their rights, especially when our staff who attend to them are not aware of their specific needs. No special attention is given to older people."
The free health care to which displaced people have a right is often not granted, or does not cater for older displaced people's specific needs, especially emotional trauma and chronic illnesses.
The critical situation of older displaced people has not been recognised by the government, NGOs or international aid agencies based in Colombia. Apart from some local dioceses of the church, no institution specifically caters for the needs of this group.
The attention that is provided is often very welfarist, denying older people their right to participation and to economic and social development.
Call to action
HelpAge International makes the following recommendations:
- Collect data on the displaced population, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity and geography.
- Develop programmes and policies that target the diverse needs of the displaced population.
- Promote intergenerational strategies that help to rebuild families and communities, and empower displaced people to claim their rights.
- Strengthen government and private entities' ability to respond to the needs of displaced people and include older people in their programmes.
- Educate displaced people and service providers about their respective rights and responsibilities.