Challenges to the Governance of the Return of Victims Abroad to Colombia

By Paul De Ryck and Stéphanie López Villamil

The return to Colombia of victims of the armed conflict living abroad has arisen as a major issue over the last few years. The emergence of numerous claims from victims to arrange their return in decent and safe conditions and the negotiations carried out by the Colombian government and the FARC-EP[1] led country authorities to implement several policy measures related to Colombian return migration. However, a lack of participatory governance and civil society participation in the decision-making processes have characterised the shaping of these return policies. In spite of the unwillingness of the authorities to include them in the policy-making process, civil society organisations and other organisations supporting victims abroad issued claims and concrete proposals to influence those policy processes, with the objective of guaranteeing victims the right to come back to Colombia in voluntary, decent and safe conditions.

Photo taken during a theatre performance organised by Colombian exiled women and refugees that took place in Barcelona, Spain on 2 and 3 November 2018 (Isa Rubilar Parra, National Centre for Historical Memory.


The question of the return of Colombians living abroad, particularly the return of victims of the civil conflict, arrived a few years ago onto the Colombian political stage, during the time of the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC guerrilla in 2016. In fact, the progressive implementation of migration policies by the Government of Colombia at the end of the 2000s, combined with Colombian citizens living abroad claiming their rights, and the beginning of the peace process, have led to the commencement of several initiatives issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs related to Colombian returnees[2]. Greater legal precedents have been established that expand the legal possibilities of supporting return migrants, while various institutional programs have been carried out in order to improve the return conditions of Colombians abroad, through reintegration assistance in Colombian society.

The Colombian government estimates that around 4.7 million Colombians live abroad, that is to say more than 10% of its global population (Dinero 2019). Colombians abroad may be found predominantly in neighboring countries, but also in the United States and Spain. Moreover, economic and political turmoil in Venezuela has increased the need to achieve an efficient return policy for Colombians, as thousands of them had emigrated to Venezuela since the oil boom in the 1970s and are now looking to return (López 2019). According to Migración Colombia[3], more than 500.000 Colombians have already returned from Venezuela (El Nacional 2019).

Exile is a key issue in the Colombian political and social context, as it represents a ‘prorogation of the impacts of the armed conflict and of generalised violence beyond Colombia’s borders’ according to the National Centre for Historical Memory (NCMH 2016: 20). However, this is an unknown phenomenon in Colombia which, despite the long history of the armed conflict, remains invisible today to many (NCMH 2018). Colombians who left the country due to the armed conflict have not been a priority in the national agenda compared to those internally displaced. If victims overall, regardless of place, have suffered certain invisibility, ‘the invisibility of the victims abroad is even worse (…) they are faceless victims who had to leave everything behind them’ (Duarte and Aliaga 2018: 62). Nevertheless, institutional responses from the Colombian authorities as a welcoming country for its returning citizens have been so far inoperative, particularly regarding assistance to those called ‘victims abroad’ - victims of the armed conflict who fled to other countries[4]. In particular, restricted involvement of civil society and of main interested parties, such as victims themselves, whether they have already returned or not, has characterised the decision-making and monitoring of a return legal framework for victims abroad. In fact, return policies have suffered from a deficit of ‘governance’.

This article aims to examine, from a critical perspective, the governance of return policies of victims abroad to Colombia and the integrated approach applied to assistance for return victims. It raises the following question: to what extent have inputs from civil society organizations been incorporated in the governance of return for Colombian victims abroad? Answering this question will be accomplished first through a qualitative analysis of the legal framework and public policies the Colombian government has implemented. Second, the article will highlight several reflections from civil society organisations that call for further governance of voluntary return of victims abroad.

Return policies in Colombia: gaps and insufficiencies

The legal framework of return in Colombia

According to Mármora (2002:297), migrant-repatriation policies are ‘aimed at retrieving emigrant population, whether it is through their physical return or their possible contribution to its origin country’. However, to grasp the issues raised by the return of victims abroad to Colombia, it is imperative to discuss the overall Colombian migration public policy, as, in this case, ‘emigration and return are two characteristics of the same migratory process’ (Díez Jiménez 2014: 23). The development of a migration policy began only in the 2000s, first through the Colombia Nos Une program created in 2003 that was incorporated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ functions and aimed to provide assistance to the Colombian diaspora. At the same time this program was created, the National Intersectoral Commission on Migration was created. However, the CONPES[5] document 3603 of 2009, which enshrined the implementation of an ‘Comprehensive Migration Policy’, following the approaches developed by the National Development Plan 2006-2010, was the first to comprehensively[6] address the migration issue in Colombia (Castro 2016). New legislation has since complemented this public policy, specifically Law 1465 of 2011 which put in place the National System on Migration.

Regarding the return of Colombians abroad, Bedoya (2014: 86) points out the ‘historical background of incentives’ of Decree No 1397/1972, directed towards Colombians possessing a university degree. As for the return of the victims, the Victims and Land Restitution Law[7], provided them the right to return to their homeland as a reparation measure[8]. Nonetheless, the topical issue of return of Colombians abroad has mostly been addressed by the Return Law[9], with the purpose of facilitating their return through a tax reduction policy, as well as customs concessions to the entry of goods acquired abroad. This legislation divides return into four different types: occupational (laboral), productive (productivo), humanitarian or for specific causes (humanitario o por razones especiales), and supportive (solidario); this last one actually applies to victims of the armed conflict, and is coordinated with the Unit for the Victims Assistance and Reparation (UARIV), as established in the Victims and Land Restitution Law. These four types have been criticised for relegating some subjects to invisibility (Aliaga et al. 2019), in particular exiled Colombians who fled their country due to the conflict but are not considered victims, as we will analyze later.

People wanting to benefit from such assistance to return envisaged by the law, provided they meet all the requirements[10], shall register in the Registro Único de Retornados (RUR), the registry of returnees. The Intersectoral Commission for Return, created by Decree 1000 of 2013, is notably tasked with considering applications made by nationals living abroad who have solicited assistance to return. They are then included in the RUR and guided in their proceedings. In parallel to these mechanisms, the Colombian authorities developed various programs aimed at enhancing the voluntary return of nationals living abroad, both nationally[11] and locally[12], some focused on the host country or the qualifications of the returnee.[13]

Finally, the return issue appears in the Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace, signed in 2016. Indeed, the point underlines the correlation between return in decent conditions and the adoption of measures that facilitate the socioeconomic reintegration of the returnees:

'The assisted return will consist of promoting conditions to facilitate their return to the country and the construction of their life project. This includes providing decent reception conditions through the coordination of these plans with the specific institutional services offered, to progressively guarantee access to basic rights, decent employment, housing, health and education at all levels according to each person’s individual needs. (Office of the High Commissioner for Peace 2016: 194).'

Governance of return in Colombia: an illusory participation

In parallel to the legal framework of return implemented by the Colombian authorities, several tools were put in place in order to facilitate civil society and victims’ participation in decision-making. However, in practice, the lack of willingness of the government to include victims in the policy-making process has restricted their participation; moreover, the fact that they have mostly been considered as economic subjects has been another obstacle to their effective participation.

Aguilar (2006: 8) defines governance as an ‘associated and interdependent governing style between governmental organisms, private and social organisations’, distinguishing governance from governability, considered as a ‘centralised hierarchic style’. Thus, governance aims at being developed in ‘different spheres of the society’ (López 2018a: 85) and at different levels (Faludi, 2012); on migration issues, some authors claim a social governance centered on cooperative actions (Barbero, 2012). Applied to the Colombian context, governance in this article refers to the inclusion of non-state actors in the design, follow-up and monitoring of migration public policies and in particular of return policies. This concept is deeply relevant in public policymaking to address international migration issues, and especially on the issue of the return of victims abroad to Colombia. Aguilar’s definition will be used as a cornerstone of this analysis, with a focus on civil society participation in the development and tracking of return policies.

Initially, the Colombian government created areas to foster the involvement of civil society stakeholders from the implementation of the Colombia Nos Une Program in 2003 onward (Ardila 2009). Moreover, the creation of the National System on Migration led to the implementation of the Mesa Nacional de la Sociedad Civil para las Migraciones, a national civil society commission especially focused on migration, composed by a group of actors such as:

Colombian population abroad, returned population, foreign community in Colombia, private companies, trade unions, humanitarian actors, NGOs, academies, populations with a differential approach (ethnic groups, gender, diversity and age-group, amongst others) who will work for the benefit of the migrant population and will look after their interest and ideas for the purpose of reaching common objectives (COLOMBIA NOS UNE 2019).

On the other hand, the Victims and Land Restitution Law enshrined in its Title VIII provisions in order to guarantee involvement of the victims in the design, implementation, execution and evaluation of public policies. In its Article 193 more particularly, it sets out the provisions for the creation of Victims Participation Roundtables, as a tool for encouraging the participation of the victims and ensuring their input on political decisions that affect them. They are institutional representative spaces compound by victims of the armed conflict, developed at a municipal, departmental, district and national scale.

Furthermore, since the Habana peace negotiations, a forum for participation of the victims abroad was launched, which included returnees who were previously exiled (López 2018a). They organized the International Forum for Victims (FIV)[14], which enabled them to exert pressure on the government to address in the final version of the Peace Agreement the topical issue of return as reparations, demonstrating civil society’s capacity to have an impact on decision-making.

However, the lack of coordination between the different parts of the Mesa Nacional de la Sociedad Civil para las Migraciones prevented it from choosing a representative before the Intersectoral National Commission on Migration, as planned by the law (López 2018a). Likewise, at the field level, governance of return in Colombia is ‘non-existent’, mainly because of the centralization of the Colombian government (López 2018a: 95). Indeed, Bedoya (2014) quotes several interviewed returnees who live in the Risaralda and Quindío departments, in the coffee region, saying the fact that the government has not decentralized enough financial and human resources, as well as scarce institutional coordination, has triggered this absence of operational governance (Bedoya 2014). Return policies are not a top priority of the Colombian government, who has been more focused on its struggle against guerrillas, poverty, drug trafficking or internal displacement, which can also explain the failure in the implementation of these laws (Bedoya 2014). Then, though there are legislative measures to promote civil society participation, they have hardly been operative in reality, due to a lack of willingness from the Colombian government, which seem to be more willing to create the ‘illusion’ of participation, rather than foster the actual participation of civil society.

Aside from the fulfilment of cathartic functions and the retrieval of one’s citizenship for people who suffered severe violations of their basic rights, the participation of victims is crucial for understanding the return experience of these persons and addressing these experiences in the policy-making process. Nevertheless, several policies were designed without the institutional involvement of victims as foreshadowed by the Victims and Land Restitution Law; their influence in decision-making processes has been very limited, while the lack of coordination between the local and national levels created a profound sense of frustration among the victims (Berrío 2013). For instance, the Constitutional Court, repeatedly emphasized the weaknesses of the ‘Nation-Territory Coordination Strategy’; in its Judgment Auto 383-2010, it showed the lack of political willingness from local authorities, who do not implement national action points; as well as the lack of human resources and the numerous administrative changes that prevent public officials from acquiring relevant skills with regard to the inclusion of civil society in policy-making.

These instruments of participatory democracy, purportedly directed towards enhancing the civil population’s engagement in shaping return policies, are inoperative and do not foster participatory governance on return. In fact, this lack of governance reflects the absence of a comprehensive return policy. In spite of the ratification of a few sporadic laws, there is no holistic vision for return migration in Colombia. Although substantial advances have been made as a result of the Return Law and the tax incentives it offered to enhance the return of Colombian citizens[15], it is characterised by its restrictive conception of the migration issue (Bedoya 2014). Moreover, although it recognises the existence of four different types of returnees, its focus on the economic significance their return could represent leaves aside the protection of their rights (AESCO 2012). According to Muñoz, Mejía y Castro (2012: 11), ‘return public policies only offer a clear picture to those who return with good resources and financial capital’.

Certainly, the economic approach of return policies in Colombia, combined with the lack of involvement of civil society actors whose expertise is a vital element for its governance, have led to the development of a legal framework that does not fully guarantee the victims’ enjoyment of their right to return. As a matter of fact, the government’s strategy on return appears to be determined by a cost-benefit analysis of the potentially lost remittances generated by the returns of Colombians abroad and the gain in human capital (Mármora 2002). Hence, this neoclassic focus on migration, particularly exposed by Massey et al. (1993) and that we can attribute to the Colombian approach to return, leads to the exclusion of the return of victims abroad within the global return policies and theorizing. For example, López (2018b) criticises this perspective, which only considers the migrant as a subject of economic development, ignoring the most vulnerable ones.

The marginalization of victims abroad in the return process

The exclusion of victims in the return policymaking process is evident by the marginalization of victims in relevant policies. First, the restrictive definition of a victim, apart from limiting the participation of many in the policymaking process, also excludes many de facto victims abroad from the possibility of benefiting from return programs (Fuentes-Becerra y Atehortúa-Arredondo 2015). Duarte and Aliaga (2018), though they do not deny the significant impact of the Victims Law, point out its limitations regarding reparations for victims abroad. In regard to return, the information contained in the Unit for the Victims Assistance and Reparation (UARIV) specifies that only people included in the Registro Único de Víctimas (RUV), the registry for victims, can benefit from an assistance to return (UARIV 2019):

Thus, when only referring to victims of internal forced displacement in its definition of forced displacement (Art. 60), this law excludes thousands of victims abroad who had to flee for multi-faceted and complex reasons that may not be acknowledged as sufficient by the definition of forced displacement (Duarte and Aliaga 2018).

As for supportive return, UARIV registered 1.058 returns from 21 countries; in 2018, only 408 people returned. It should be noted that a total of 12.222 victims requested inclusion in the RUV from abroad (UARIV, personal communication, 29 March 2019), demonstrating how low the rate of return is. In comparison, in February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 340.000 Colombians were refugees around the world, 95% of whom were located in Latin America, demonstrating the issue of under-registration.

On the other hand, the absence of a policy that guarantees victims abroad a return in voluntary, decent and safe conditions has been highlighted. The absence of a guarantee of such conditions allows for the potential re-victimisation of these people upon return. Hence, in spite of the signing of the Peace Agreement, in several areas of the country, armed groups and criminal bands are still perpetrating gross human rights violations. Indeed, for many victims abroad, it is meaningless to return if the unsafe conditions that led them to flee are still extant. According to Duarte and Aliaga (2018), 'in Colombia, we cannot talk of a postconflict yet, well, even if there has been a negotiated a peace agreement with the FARC-EP, there are other actors that are an important part of the armed conflict in Colombia and who are still active' (2018: 65).

Furthermore, the lack of comprehensive assistance from the State has been fundamental to the failure of these programs, as the lack of institutional support has impeded the socioeconomic reintegration of the returnees. Likewise, disregard for the heterogeneity of the returned population in Colombia and the scarcity of information in relation to the returnees’ socioeconomic characteristics, have made it difficult to address the reality of return and have caused inefficiencies in the return process (López 2018b). There is only one study in Colombia that exposed the socioeconomic characteristics of Colombian return migrants in recent years[16]. Thus, it is difficult to design return policies adapted to returnee needs, as there are limited data on the gender, age, education level and labor skills of Colombian returnees, as well as their host communities.

Towards a governance of return in Colombia: ideas from the civil society

Given the lack of inclusion of non-governmental stakeholders in the design and implementation of return policies, several civil society organisations have issued alternatives for the development of a comprehensive return policy in Colombia for the victims of the armed conflict who have left the national territory. This work has provided a valuable input, whether it is by means of the drafting of numerous grievances, or by concrete proposals aimed at improving return policies through an incremented governance.

Pleas for the creation of adequate conditions for the return of victims abroad

Despite the restricted participation of civil society organisations in formal forums, several civil society organisations have advocated for different policies and rights for victims abroad. First, they have advocated for the acknowledgement of exile as a victimising fact by the Colombian government, in order to allow a greater access for victims abroad to return programs. Thus, Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES 2017a)[17] emphasises the need to extend victims’ recognition to an extraterritorial approach to foster the visibility of those who live abroad. The Fifth International Forum for Victims held in Alicante, Spain in December 2018, also pushed for the acknowledgement of transboundary displacement as a victimising act. The Commission on Forced Migrations, Exile and Reconciliation (2018: 3)[18] stresses the need to implement an ‘adequate structure to guarantee victims abroad access to attention, assistance and reparation measures’. Finally, the Red de Víctimas Colombianas por la Paz Latinoamérica y Caribe (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018)[19] pleads for the automatic recognition as a victim for refugees who voluntarily request their inclusion in the RUV.

The signing of the Peace Agreement triggered the interest of many exiled Colombians who associate their desire to return with its implementation (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018) which has so far been a major claim from civil society stakeholders. Indeed, due to the high-level of vulnerability and uncertainty of numerous victims abroad, guaranteeing decent and safe conditions is imperative to enhance their return. Through an investigation on the possible return of Colombian citizens who live in Spain, América, España, Solidaridad y Cooperación (AESCO 2016)[20] showed that 80% of the interviewed people who expressed their willingness to return to Colombia in the post-conflict context would be motivated by safe return conditions.

Indeed, the safety issue is prominent in people’s minds when considering a potential return to Colombia, as highlighted by an elderly man living in Quito, Ecuador. He states that ‘the whole subject of durable solutions is bound to the possibility of returning to Colombia. If I want to come back to Colombia, I should be able to do it in complete safety’ (CNMH 2018: 216). However, the sluggish implementation of the Peace Agreement has not generated suitable conditions for their return so far, which can explain the fact that a significant part of the Colombian diaspora does not want to return to Colombia for now (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). In addition, the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation Commission of Colombian women in the diaspora (TMRC 2018)[21] found that a main issue for returned women to Colombia has been to find themselves in unsafe situations due to their status as women.

The idea of decent return also refers to the need to provide returnees with assistance to foster their socioeconomic reintegration in Colombia. In many cases, most of the victims abroad could not rely on the help from relatives in their reintegration process, whether it is because they were also forced to flee their home or perished during the conflict, or because they do not have the financial means to do so. In light of this, the Government of Colombia’s support is essential beyond the repatriation process. Eighty percent of the families interviewed by REVICPAZ-LAC (2018) stress that access to healthcare is a vital component in the design of return policies. Second to this is access to decent employment (78.4%), followed by the relocation of all the members of the household (68%), and the recognition of studies completed abroad (58.4%).

Many returnees mentioned the absence of information around the existence of migration and return policies, which led to them returning without any institutional support. Those who did receive assistance from the Colombian authorities highlighted the scarcity of support during the return process. In particular, they lacked attention for their reintegration, above all regarding access to education for kids, healthcare, work and decent housing (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). Women especially experienced great difficulties in finding a job adapted to their profile when they came back, even though many returned with entrepreneurial ideas (TMRC 2018).

Also, civil society has strongly requested coordination between return programs and Development Programs with a Territorial-Based Approach (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET) contained in the Peace Agreement. This is crucial to boost the inclusion of locals and returnees in equal conditions and essential in fostering the reconstruction of the social fabric and territorial peace (CODHES 2017a; REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). As pointed out in point 1.1.7 of the Peace Agreement, land restitution is a sine qua non to allow socioeconomic stabilisation of forced displaced people and promote their return in decent conditions.

Concrete proposals from civil society

These several claims led different civil society actors - victims organisations, human rights organisations in particular - to draft concrete proposals, aiming to create conditions conducive to the return of victims abroad. The explicit incorporation of victims abroad in the Peace Agreement is a significant step as it recognises forced displacement outside of the country and extends the focus to an extraterritorial approach on victims. However, there are still legal gaps regarding the question of their return, and regarding reparations and political participation (CODHES 2017a).

The limits of the Victims and Land Restitution Law in regard to victims abroad, formerly described, must be overcome to enhance a global peace-building process through reparations for these victims and guarantees of non-repetition. In particular, CODHES (2017a), as well as REVICPAZ-LAC (2018), have urged the Colombian government to recognise exile as a victimising act. In fact, CODHES (2017b) notably wrote a draft law proposal aimed to edit the Victims and Land Restitution Law to bring it in line with the Peace Agreement. The main proposal is the inclusion of a definition of the concept of victims abroad, absent this law, for the people who were forced to abandon their country in relation to, or because of, the armed conflict. Moreover, it would introduce an article that enshrines the right of these victims to a voluntary and assisted return in safe conditions and socioeconomic sustainability. Then, if all the civil society organizations urge the government to adopt a broader legal framework on the return of victims abroad, particularly regarding the acknowledgement of exile as a victimising act, CODHES has committed to rewrite the Victims and Land Restitution Law.

Likewise, CODHES continues to attempt to strengthen the involvement of victims abroad, through the integration of delegates of Comités de Impulso de los Sujetos de Reparación Colectiva (Impulse Committees on Collective Reparation Subjects) within the Participatory Roundtables, who would represent victimised ethnic people, as well as victims abroad. Indeed, citizenships restitution to the victims abroad is an imperative condition for them to get their rights back. As a consequence, CODHES (2017a) pushes for several reforms of the political system, including voting rights and means for Colombians who have not returned, as well as other measures provided in point two of the Peace Agreement concerning political participation.

The restitution of civil rights appears to be a form of collective reparation for those victims living outside of Colombia (CODHES 2017a). Though the Victims and Land Restitution Law provides rules related to the reparation of victims abroad, CODHES (2017a: 17) describes them as a ‘precarious legal development’. Hence, along with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS 2018)[22], CODHES promotes the implementation of a transnational approach to reparation, first realised by the identification of individual and collective reparations, and by the implementation of public policies to foster the return and reintegration of victims abroad to Colombian society if they wish so (CODHES 2017a). On this subject, the International Network of Human Rights (INHR)[23] recommends the creation of a specific commission for the Colombian diaspora within the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-repetition, with a differential focus, aimed at building a ‘historical memory on migration, refuge and victims abroad as a reparation mechanism’ (INHR 2017: 8). Although this last proposal seems particularly relevant in order to increase the visibility of victims abroad and to foster their contribution to the peacebuilding process, it may be difficult to implement such a Commission in the next years, as the peace processes has already been launched and are currently experiencing significant difficulties moving forward.

The organisation REVICPAZ-LAC (2018) has been another important stakeholder in advocating for the need to improve the socioeconomic reincorporation of returnees. First, it points out the need to design a specific program for voluntary, decent, and safe return for refugees, asylum seekers, and victims abroad, characterised by an assistance to return that is not only economic but also psychosocial, the creation of institutional routes to ease the regularisation of relatives born outside of Colombia, as well as access to healthcare, education and occupational reintegration. REVICPAZ-LAC (2018) also emphasises the need to improve degree and skills accreditation, accompaniment and support for kids and teenagers on local integration, and transfers of pension contributions. As for women, their access to labour opportunities must be facilitated through the construction of professional networks to encourage their inclusion in the labour market (TMRC 2018).

On the extensive participation of victims in decision-making, the International Forum for Victims has been particularly active. Indeed, the International Forum for Victims advocated for the acknowledgement and deeper inclusion of victims’’organisations in the elaboration of return policies. In fact, according to REVICPAZ-LAC (2018), UARIV has been averse to working with civil society stakeholders based in host countries of victims. Promoting operative participation of refugee’s associations and civil society organisations in host countries and in Colombia in all the steps of the policy-making process - design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation - is paramount for considering the needs of victims (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). Indeed, the experiences of the victim population is indispensable for the coordination of relevant actors in return programs, as well as for the identification of good practices, notably for future returnees. This claim emerges from victims abroad themselves, who emphasise the need to create victim-led organisations, who understand the conflict and the reality of exile: ‘what we need are organisations that arise from us, grassroots organisations made up by people who lived the conflict. We are the ones who really know about that (Afrocolombian woman, exiled in Ecuador)’ (CNMH 2018: 295).

Furthermore, the State must guarantee resources for travel from host countries back to the country of origin, with priority given to the most vulnerable people. In the case of victims abroad, it must coordinate return programs that also provide special assistance, attention and reparation mechanisms. Assistance, monitoring, and evaluation of local integration processes are equally essential, especially for the socioeconomic stabilisation, security assurances and non-repetition of the returnees’ forced displacement (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). Local governance is also key to better prepare societies to receive returnees, considering many times returnees are judged or welcomed based on political and symbolic representations, something for which the work achieved by civil society organisations in combatting xenophobia is crucial (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018).

Last but not least, other key stakeholders, such as IOM, UNHCR and states hosting victims abroad also perform vital roles. The formation of multiparty working groups composed of these actors, as well as civil society organisations and victims abroad, are therefore necessary to enable the execution and evaluation of return programs and to promote voluntary return programs (REVICPAZ-LAC 2018). However, as some organisations have argued, the diaspora and host countries should agree upon these return plans, which should not make up a part of a repatriation policy shaped by the European Union or other external actors (INHR 2017).


Policies aimed at fostering the return of victims abroad represent a major issue Colombian authorities have to deal with, despite it not being their main priority in the last few years. Nevertheless, the issue is also critical for a multitude of other actors, including civil society stakeholders and victims organisations, whose participation in the design and implementation of those policies is of great importance. Through a comprehensive review of the legal framework of return in Colombia and of civil society organizations’ proposals on this matter, this article has aimed to show that, although there are legal means that have been adopted to enable the governance of the return of victims abroad to Colombia, in its application, there has been a very limited participation of civil society in decision-making.

To cope with the lack of participatory governance in this area, concrete proposals made by these organisations, mainly based on the experience of victims, have proven to be crucial in promoting the implementation of return policies for the victims abroad in safe and decent conditions. In particular, return programs should not provide return assistance that is only circumscribed to humanitarian aid for repatriation, but should rather be structured around two other issues, according to Mármora (2002): determining the reasons that led the migrant to flee his country and including mechanisms to foster his (her) reinsertion in his (her) home country.

It is legitimate to question the effectiveness of certain proposals in the current political context. Indeed, the acknowledgement of exile as a victimising act, through an amendment to Victims and Land Restitution Law, would constitute a significant step forward for thousands of victims abroad. However, the lack of commitment of the Colombian government towards this recognition makes it unlikely that the request will be adopted, taking into consideration that the validity of this legislation, the Victims and Land Restitution Law, extends only until 2021. Moreover, even if the Colombian authorities were to amend this law, the experience has proven so far that the laws implemented to foster the return of victims abroad had not trickled down onto the operational level; then, without a comprehensive adaptation of the policy on the ground, amending this law would not actually change the current situation. In addition, despite the signing of the Peace Agreement, its limited implementation, largely due to the lack of the political will from the Colombian government, led to the continuation of the conflict in several regions of the country, in which dissident armed actors, paramilitary groups, and drug traffickers have impeded the establishment of decent and safe conditions for the return of victims.

Nevertheless, the impact of civil society on policymaking in the area of return has been profound in some matters. The strengthening of the governance of return of victims abroad is intimately linked to the long-term efforts victims and human rights organisations have been realising. Pressure from the International Forum for Victims to include the issue of victims abroad in the Peace Agreement, mentioned earlier, illustrates the advocacy capacity of these stakeholders, despite the typical reticence of the government to implement their recommendations.

In sum, the involvement of exiled citizens and civil society organisations in policymaking on return migration is necessary to consolidate peace and economic recovery in a post-conflict Colombia and is currently insufficient, if not altogether absent. In fact, ‘it is clear that the success of mass repatriation is inextricably connected to the complex processes underpinning post-conflict reconstruction and vice versa’ (Long 2010: 17). Thus, the return of victims abroad and the construction of sustainable peace in Colombia are interrelated issues, as the return of many victims depends on the existence of decent and safe conditions for their repatriation, while at the same time, their participation in peace processes is imperative to the reconstruction of the social fabric. Although the Colombian government seems to be applying a participatory governance approach to return policymaking, the implementation of the existing legal framework the civil society claims analysed in the article show that the participatory aspect of the governance of return remains, overall, an illusory approach.

Paul De Ryck is a postgraduate student in Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law at the National University of Colombia. He holds a MA in International Relations and Crisis Management from the Institute of Political Studies of Toulouse, France. His research interests are forced migrations, conflict-related migration, migration and human rights, humanitarian assistance and migration.

Stephanie López Villamil is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Studies and International Relations, at the National University of Colombia, working on Return Migration Policies in Colombia and Ecuador. She holds a MA in Political and Social Sciences from the University of Strasbourg, BA in Political Sciences, National University of Colombia. She is also a researcher at the Displacements and Migrations Group., and alumni of the Institute “Forced population displacements and the making of the modern world” from Brown University International Advanced Research Institutes, a member of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) and the International Public Policy Association (IPPA) among others. Her research interests are migration policies, return migration, children on the move, migration governance and citizenship.


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[1] The FARC - Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) - also called FARC-EP - EP standing for Ejercito del Pueblo (People’s Army) - has long been the most important guerrilla in Colombia, until its dismantlement by the Peace Agreement in 2016 and its transformation into a political party - la Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force). In spite of the Peace Agreement, several dissident groups are still existing.

[2] In general, return can be defined as the ‘return of an international immigrant to his home country, with the intention of re-establishing his residence in it, regardless of the length of his stay outside of his country and of the eventuality of a posterior reemigration’ (Mejía and Castro 2012: 17). The International Organization for Migration (IOM, 2006) distinguishes voluntary returns without obligation, from obligated voluntary returns (due to the ending of migrants’ temporal protection, rejected asylum, etc.) and compulsory returns (deportation, expulsion).

[3] Migración Colombia is a governmental immigration agency.

[4] There are victims living in foreign countries who have not acquired the refugee status, while others have; in this article, both are included in the same category: ‘victims abroad’.

[5] The National Council for Economic and Social Policy (CONPES) is the highest national planning authority and functions as an advisory body for the Government in all matters relating to Colombia's economic and social development.

[6] For the first time, the Colombian government stopped separating policies for immigrant and emigrant flows and began to articulate the implementation of migration strategies between its authorities (Ciurlo 2015).

[7] Law 1448 of 2011. Ley de Víctimas y restitución de tierras: por la cual se dictan medidas de atención, asistencia y reparación integral a las víctimas del conflicto armado interno y se dictan otras disposiciones.

[8] Article 28 stated the right to return to their place of origin or to resettle in voluntary, safe and decent conditions. Likewise, article 66 established that ‘with the purpose of guaranteeing comprehensive attention to victims of forced displacement who voluntarily decide to return or resettle, under favourable and safe conditions, they will endeavour to stay in the place they chose so that the State can guarantee the effective enjoyment of the rights’.

[9] Law 1565 of 2012. Por medio de la cual se dictan disposiciones y se fijan incentivos para el retorno de los colombianos residentes en el extranjero.

[10] The available information on the website: emphasises the following requirements:

1. Be of legal age.

2. Prove their permanency abroad for at least three years.

3. Must not have current convictions in Colombia or abroad and provided they have not been condemned for offences against the public administration

4. Must not have more than 12 months living in the national territory after having returned.

5. Provide relevant authorities with their interest in returning to Colombia invoking Law 1565 of 2012.

[11] The ‘Retorno Positivo’ plan was created in 2009, through which were established the Oficina de Atención al Migrante y los Centros de Referenciación y Oportunidades para el Retorno (CRORE), regional instances that bring assistance to the returnees. In addition, the former Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation now known as the Department for Social Prosperity, implemented two programs: the ‘Retornar es Vivir’ program in 2010, which prioritised the assistance to returned families in 115 municipalities; and the ‘Familias en su Tierra’ program, born in the frame of the Victims and Land Restitution Law.

[12] The ‘Bienvenido a Casa’ program was created in 2009 in Bogotá, and was replicated in the Risaralda Department as the ‘Siempre serás bienvenido a tu tierra’ program.

[13] The ‘Retorno Productivo’ Plan (2012) focused on the return of Colombians who owned a professional or technical degree, while the ‘Es Tiempo de Volver’ program, implemented in 2014, aimed at incorporating Colombian doctors trained abroad.

[14] The International Forum for Victims is a communication, coordination and participatory action mechanism, created by victims of the armed conflict who live outside of Colombia, with the purpose of collecting reflections and proposals from civil society regarding peace issues.

[15] In particular, as mentioned earlier, a tax reduction policy, as well as customs concessions to the entry of goods acquired abroad, an affiliation to family compensation funds. In another context, tax incentives were notably used by the Malaysian government to target high-skilled Malaysians abroad and incite them to return (World Bank 2016).

[16] This study was realized by the District Observatory on Migration of the Secretary General of the Mayor of Bogotá office and the Colombian Observatory on Migration of the Esperanza Foundation and the Alma Mater Network, a network of several public universities in Colombia, in 2009.

[17] CODHES is a non-profit organisation working in the area of human rights and international humanitarian law, with a focus on peace building processes and displaced populations.

[18] The Commission on Forced Migrations, Exile and Reconciliation is a coordination mechanism between civil society organisations and academic actors in Colombia and several countries of the region, compound amongst other by CODHES and the International Forum for Victims.

[19] REVICPAZ-LAC is an organisation that gathers victims’ groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, and unites victims who do not necessarily form a part of organisations. It is a paramount civil society stakeholder, as it provides victims with an international forum of expression.

[20] AESCO is a non-profit organisation whose purpose is to improve solidarity through development cooperation projects between Europe and Latin America. It works particularly with vulnerable people and has developed several projects with migrant networks in Spain.

[21] TMRC is a Colombian-women-led organisation created in London in 2014 working with Colombian women on migration and return.

[22] The Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic NGO working in the field of refugee assistance.

[23] INHR is a non-profit organisation whose mission is the promotion and protection of human rights.