July 2014, 15th IASFM Conference, Bogota, Colombia

International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) 15th Conference in Bogotá, Colombia

15th to 18th of July 2014

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Since its foundation in 1994, the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) has brought together academics, policy makers, and activists dedicated to the research, analysis and discussion of forced migration issues on both an international and local level. Since the first IASFM conference in 1996 in Eldoret, Kenya, the bi-annual event has become the leading non-governmental forum on forced migration, where the global agenda for research and intervention are discussed and designed.

From 15th -18th July 2014, the IASFM15 Conference took place in Bogotá, Colombia, guided by the theme: „Forced Migration and Peace: 30 Years after the Cartagena Declaration“.  Hosted by Pontificia de la Compañía de Jesús Bogotá, the meeting brought together the largest number of people ever to attend an IASFM conference, with 300 participants from more than 50 countries. Altogether, there were 250 papers presented during 61 panels over four days, complemented by a series of public lectures, plenaries, documentary screenings, book launches, a photography exhibition, and an audio-walk.

The conference was organized around six cross-cutting themes  of 1) Peace-building and forced exodus; 2) Justice and forced migration, including the rights to truth, justice and reparation;  3)Regional responses to forced exodus such as the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, the 1969 African Union Convention governing the Specific  Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 2009 Kampala Convention on Internal Displacement; 4) Durable solutions for forced migrants; 5) Forced migration in times of peace, for example due to environmental harm or gang violence, and finally; 6) Resistance and migration, focused on strategies of resistance of refugees and displaced persons who personally face and confront expulsion, uprooting and dispossession.

The emphasis of the conference rested squarely on the issue of forced displacement and peace, with a very specific focus on the historical and contemporary situation in the hosting country of Colombia. In her opening remarks, Colombian IASFM Programme chair Dr. Beatriz Eugenia Sánchez stressed the present relevance of the conference, taking place at a time when peace negotiations between the Colombian government, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, National Liberation Army) are underway in Havana, with at the time seemed fruitful and likely to culminate in a comprehensive peace agreement putting an end to 50 years of conflict. (Only four months later on the 17th of November, global headlines would report the suspension of the Colombian peace negotiations on part of government, which accuses FARC of the kidnapping of an army general in the country’s remote northern border region. The government has made his unconditional release a pre-condition for resuming the peace talks.) In her speech, she made the main objective of the conference absolutely clear:  to provide a platform for the displaced communities of Colombia themselves. This, she said, is a story of displacement and violence, but also one of resistance and struggle. She stressed the importance of aligning and informing academic and policy debates as closely as possible with the lived experiences of refugees and displaced persons of Colombia, Latin America, and beyond.

Colombia is home to one of the longest armed struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries, and one of the most protracted humanitarian crises in the world. Since its onset in 1964, the conflict has cost the lives of an estimated 50.000 – 200.000 people, and caused forced displacement on a scale only matched by the Syria crisis: an estimated 5.7 million Colombians are currently forcibly displaced within their own country, while latest figures put the number of Colombian refugees at nearly 400,000. Since the beginning of the conflict 50 years ago, more than 5% of Colombia’s arable land – around 3,200,000 hectares – has been illegally confiscated. Already marginalized groups, particularly Afro-Colombians, the indigenous population, and rural dwellers, experience the most disproportionate impact of the violence on their livelihoods. Despite the ongoing conflict, as the Deputy Representative of UNHCR Colombia Martin Gottwald pointed out, Colombian asylum seekers in neighboring countries are confronted with increasingly restrictive immigration systems: In 2010, 85% of Colombian refugees to Ecuador were recognized, but in 2014 this has dropped to only 6%. While the Colombian peace process has been cited as proof of a “safe” Colombia, Ecuador also recently modified its Refugee Act to remove the expanded refugee definition set out in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration which severely restricted access to the domestic asylum procedure. Overall, 60% of Colombian refugees have not been recognized as such in (mostly neighboring) countries of refuge and are frequently denied access to even the most basic services – still, most of the displaced currently do not want to return to Colombia due to fears for their own safety.

The highlights of the conference included hearing IDPs’ own perspectives on resisting and responding to forced displacement, with a view to comparing strategies and building grassroots coalitions across continents. The first plenary session of IASFM15, Voices from the Displaced People, gave center stage to IDP leaders from some of the areas most affected by conflict in Colombia. Emphasizing the complexities of Colombia’s 60-year old conflict, which is commonly reduced to a simple FARC versus the Colombian state narrative, they hauntingly drew attention to the extent of right-wing paramilitary activity in Colombia shaped by high-level political and business interests. Throughout their testimonies, the crucial role of land restitution and agrarian reform as sustainable solutions to the conflict were repeatedly highlighted. Despite the passing of the ambitious 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) by the Colombian government and an increasing effort to compensate displaced communities, an IDP leader explained that “some land has been returned but we still cannot go back due to threats to our lives by paramilitaries, politicians and businessmen.”   In fact, tales of great intimidation and politically motivated killings featured strongly in the stories told.  The plenary discussion among the IDP leaders was interspersed with musical performances by the singers of Las Pavas, a community located in the South of the Bolivar Department which has been displaced three times during the last decade by paramilitaries, narco-traffickers and an extensive agro industrial palm oil project.

Five members of the New Scholars Network (NSN), now the ESPMI Network (Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues), attended to present their own individual research as well as to publicize ESPMI’s   scholastic and networking benefits for those new to and emerging within the field worldwide. Their members presented papers alongside 250 others within 61 panels; specifically in “Complex Forced Migration Scenarios” (Dacia Douhaibi), “Resettlement: Challenges and Opportunities” (Petra Molnar Diop), “Protection Challenges and Return as Durable Solution” (Brittany Wheeler and Ina Jahn) and “Vulnerable Groups: Protection Challenges” (Bani Gill).

Beyond paper presentations, the conference was further enriched by several collaborative art projects showcased throughout.  These included the highly thought-provoking photography exhibition Volume 44, a collaborative project between the African Centre for Migration Studies (ACMS) at Wits University, Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, and Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa. The exhibit, overseen by Elsa Oliveira and Dr. Jo Vearey, poignantly brought to light the varied experiences of migrant women engaged in sex work within inner-city Johannesburg through the photography and journal entries of the migrant women. The exhibit touched on issues such as individual aspirations, acceptance of oneself, personal relationships, engagement with the city’s spaces, and the challenges posed by police harassment, official authorities, sexual violence/health, stigmatization and discrimination.

Building on this participatory theme, the audio walk “The Most Convenient Way Out”, by Colombian academic and performance artist Luis Carlos Sotelo, took the listener on a journey into the inner life of a young demobilized Colombian who turns himself in to the authorities to take part in a “reintegration” scheme. For the Audio Walk, one was paired with a young demobilized man to be led to several sites around the conference venue, during which he told his story but would not allow any questions. While listening to his real life testimony, and briskly walking around campus, one would eventually reach the top of the highest building on campus. At this point, the man very unexpectedly and suddenly sped away. Suddenly deserted on top of the building, the listener was left thoroughly confused and disoriented. In trying to make sense of the situation and finding the way back to the initial departure point, one’s feelings were reminiscent of a deep sense of alienation. Instead of offering straightforward conclusions, the performance walk made the listeners feel the dislocations, doubts and confusion of a personal transition from violent conflict.

For the first time, IASFM also saw the participation of documentary film makers, who showed and discussed their work with the audience. The films shown included Retratos en un mar de mentiras (Portraits in a sea of lies), Hasta la ultima piedra (Until the last stone) and Un pais errante (Wandering country), which all confront Colombia’s history of displacement and conflict in a critical and unsettling way, and starkly challenge the monopolization of information on the conflict by the Colombian Armed Forces.

Returning to the contributions of ESPMI during the conference, the network was able to build on the many discussions taking place during the conference via both a workshop session and social networking event. Both events were concurrent to either panel discussions or screenings, but the interest and attendance in both exceeded expectation.  During the social event, the ideas and objectives of ESPMI were presented, and attendees discussed their research in an informal setting over snacks and amongst some media (Talzar of Zoril, a short ‘documentary’ on the story of an Iraqi refugee in Sweden and small exhibit of photographs from asylum seekers and refugees in Chicago known as the Photovoice Exhibit). This event allowed ESPMI to connect with young scholars and practitioners from several continents. The workshop, held the following day, focused primarily on exchanging shared and individual views and experiences with migration issues as emerging scholars. A very fruitful conversation emerged, focused on:  (1) questions of representation, (2) the ethics of doing fieldwork in post-conflict settings, (3) the manifold consequences of one’s research, and (4) the way in which the theory/practice binary and university funding politics are always embedded in one’s own work.

ESPMI built great momentum and made valuable connections which will carry the network forward in respect to both their own projects and to the IASFM 16 conference in July 2016, which will take place in Poznań, Poland.

The official IASFM15 Conference Report and the Opening Keynote (in Spanish) can be found here.