The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Human Migration from Colombia: A US National Security Interest

  • Published
  • By Donald Ehrman, GS-14, USAF

The escalating humanitarian crisis stemming from forced displacement within Colombia poses a direct threat to US security interests. Driven by systemic political disenfranchisement and widespread economic instability, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans seek survival outside their homeland. Supporting existing Colombian programs that address the root causes of this displacement and provide humanitarian solutions to migrants prioritizes human needs while tackling the destabilizing forces resulting from transnational migration. This collaborative approach offers the most sustainable path toward lessening humanitarian suffering and promoting genuine regional security in the Americas.

Political Disenfranchisement

Legacy of Armed Conflict: Colombia has endured decades of internal armed conflict, leaving a deep and complex legacy that continues to cast a shadow over the nation. This conflict involved a multitude of actors, primarily government forces, leftist guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), and right-wing paramilitary organizations.[1] While the 2016 peace accord with the FARC represented a significant step towards ending hostilities, the path toward lasting peace remains precarious.[2]

Fragile Peace: Implementation of the peace deal is slow, particularly in rural areas. This leaves a power vacuum vulnerable to new armed groups and violence, triggering waves of displacement. While the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerilla group offered a glimmer of hope, its implementation has been a slow and troubled process, particularly in rural areas. This sluggish progress has created a power vacuum that has been readily exploited by new armed groups and criminal organizations, leading to renewed violence and a fresh wave of displacement. A significant obstacle to implementing the peace deal is insufficient resources.

The Colombian government has struggled to allocate the necessary funds for rural development projects, infrastructure improvements, and programs aimed at reintegrating former FARC combatants into society. This financial strain is compounded by a complex and bureaucratic process that makes it difficult for communities to access these resources.[3] The slow rollout of promised reforms in rural areas has left a void where the FARC once held sway. This power vacuum has attracted dissident FARC factions who reject the peace process, as well as other armed groups and criminal organizations vying for control of territory and resources in these neglected regions. The ongoing presence of these armed actors fuels insecurity and hinders the return of displaced populations, further hindering efforts to establish a lasting peace.[4]

Targeted Violence/Corruption: Dissidents who reject the peace process, as well as organized crime groups, target farmers, social leaders, and human rights defenders. This creates a climate of fear and disrupts peaceful living. The state has a limited presence in many regions, particularly conflict-affected zones. Justice systems are corrupt or overwhelmed, fostering violence and impunity. This erosion of legitimate authority makes residents vulnerable and unwilling to trust in staying. The resurgence of armed groups and the lack of security in rural areas have led to a renewed wave of violence. This violence often targets social leaders, human rights defenders, and community activists working to implement the peace accord and promote social justice.[5] This climate of fear disrupts communities and forces people to flee their homes, creating a new wave of internal displacement within Colombia.[6] Corruption in Colombia, manifested through the misuse of public funds and abuse of power, erodes public trust in government institutions and breeds societal discontent. This not only weakens the state's legitimacy but also hinders its ability to effectively address issues that fuel displacement, such as violence and lack of economic opportunity. A weakened state response further undermines the sense of safety and stability for vulnerable populations, exacerbating the problems displacement seeks to escape.[7]

Widespread Economic Instability

Land Inequality: Land held by a small elite leaves the majority landless or without viable holdings. This lack of opportunity drives rural-to-urban migration and forces many into the informal economy with low wages and no protections. Colombia's stark land inequality, rooted in historical land accumulation and dispossession patterns, presents a major social and economic challenge. A powerful elite holds vast tracts of productive land, leaving the majority of the rural population landless or with small, unproductive holdings.[8] This entrenched disparity severely limits economic opportunities in rural areas, driving a steady stream of rural-to-urban migration as people seek better prospects.[9] However, migrants often face limited job options due to a lack of skills and resources, forcing many into the sprawling informal economy.[10] This sector, characterized by low wages, lack of benefits, and precarious conditions, perpetuates poverty and stymies social mobility.[11] The persistent lack of access to land and its connection to the informal economy is a crucial factor perpetuating inequality, limiting government revenue, and fueling social instability in Colombia.[12]

Lack of Economic Opportunities: Limited job opportunities and a struggling formal economy outside of Colombia's major cities push many individuals towards dependence on illicit activities such as coca cultivation. This economic imbalance between urban and rural areas leaves those in less developed regions with few legal avenues for income generation. As a result, the informal economy, consisting of unregulated activities, becomes a primary means of survival, yet it provides low wages, instability, and lacks protection.[13] Desperation for income can drive individuals to participate in illegal ventures, particularly coca cultivation, even with its associated risks and moral complexities. Criminal networks exploit these vulnerable populations, recruiting them into the various stages of the drug trade.[14] This reliance on the illicit economy perpetuates a cycle of social instability, fueling violence and corruption while undermining government institutions. Environmental degradation is another consequence, as coca cultivation contributes to deforestation and pollution.[15] Potential solutions lie in multifaceted approaches, including investment in rural development, formalization of the informal economy, targeted disruption of criminal networks, and the creation of sustainable alternative livelihoods for those currently dependent on coca production. Workers in the informal sector face labor abuses and no support safety nets. Criminal groups easily prey on the economically desperate, offering a way to survive but drawing individuals into dangerous and destabilizing dynamics.

Displacement Exacerbates Poverty: Those fleeing violence often lose everything. Without support to restart their lives in a new place, they fall into extreme poverty, leading to further risks and desperation. Colombia has a long history of internal displacement due to armed conflict, drug trafficking, and other factors. This displacement has a devastating impact on individuals and families, pushing them deeper into poverty. In Colombia, internal displacement driven by armed conflict, drug trafficking, and other factors acts as a powerful catalyst for poverty. Those who flee violence often lose everything–their homes, land, businesses, and community support systems. Suddenly uprooted and lacking resources, they find themselves unable to start anew, succumbing to extreme poverty that perpetuates a cycle of vulnerability and desperation. This loss of livelihood, limited government assistance, and the strain on existing infrastructure in receiving areas create a bleak economic landscape for the displaced. Those who once relied on agriculture lost vital access to farmland and their source of sustenance. In cities, a lack of transferable skills and networks often pushes them into the fringes of the informal economy. Moreover, severed social ties' psychological and emotional toll exacerbates these economic hardships, hindering rebuilding. Research underscores the correlation between displacement and poverty, with displaced families exhibiting higher rates of falling below the poverty line.[16] Children suffer immensely, facing malnutrition, disrupted education, and the threat of child labor.[17] Despite these challenges, Colombia is addressing irregular migration as a Colombian and US national security interest in a unique way, and the US is learning from its efforts.

Irregular Migration as US National Security Interest

Colombia's instability in vast regions of the country fuels rising irregular migration. Many Colombians using visa-free travel within the Pacific Alliance to reach Mexico often face difficulties. The US responds with expulsion flights, underscoring the humanitarian impact.[18] Colombian officials are not sitting idle and waiting for a solution. They are actively working to stem the irregular migration tide through and from their country. In July 2022, Colombia's Economic and Social Policy Council unveiled CONPES 4100, a comprehensive ten-year strategy to integrate Venezuelan migrants. This framework consists of seven key action lines designed to facilitate access to public services, promote labor market inclusion, foster social and cultural integration, and strengthen the capabilities of immigration policy institutions.  Importantly, CONPES emphasizes the value of data and evidence collection for developing an effective migration policy.[19]

Human migration from Colombia poses a significant problem for the US on a national strategic level. The Biden Administration has proposed establishing regional migration hubs across the Western Hemisphere as part of a multifaceted strategy to address complex regional migration patterns.[20] These hubs, likely positioned in countries like Mexico, Panama, and potentially Colombia, would offer decentralized processing for migrants seeking asylum, resettlement, or other lawful pathways. This collaborative approach, involving the US, host countries, and international organizations, aims to reduce unauthorized border crossings into the US, promote safer migration routes, and address the underlying drivers of displacement. The initiative acknowledges the challenges of managing mass migration at the US-Mexico border. It seeks to shift the burden to multiple points throughout the region while facilitating greater international cooperation on migration management.[21] Colombia's history of instability and drug-related violence raises serious security concerns about increased criminal activity within US borders. The potential strain on resources from large-scale migration presents economic challenges while threatening to undermine US foreign policy interests by destabilizing the Colombian region.[22] What the US is seeing in Colombia is an indigenously developed path to addressing the core issues driving irregular migration.

Addressing the displacement crisis in Colombia necessitates a multifaceted approach that prioritizes the restoration of government trust through government support and community integration and addresses economic instability through livelihood restoration. They recognize that armed conflict, fragile peace with anti-government entities, and the need to quell drug organizations bring targeted violence, and they are working to overcome these. Increased governmental investment in housing assistance programs, such as those administered by Colombia's Ministry of Housing, City, and Territory, is essential for providing displaced families with secure accommodation and overcoming land inequality.[23] Similar job training initiatives facilitated by the Ministry of Labor can equip displaced individuals with valuable skills needed for economic reintegration. Furthermore, programs aimed at social integration combat displacement, like those overseen by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, can help displaced people rebuild social networks and develop a sense of belonging in their new communities.[24]  The provision of microloans by institutions like Bancamia or vocational training programs delivered by organizations such as SENA can empower displaced individuals to reconstruct their livelihoods and achieve economic independence.[25] Support services provided by the Ministry of Health and Social Protection are equally crucial for promoting well-being and resilience among displaced populations.[26]

Temporary Protection Status (TPS) has been a cornerstone of Colombia's response to the influx of Venezuelan migrants, providing legal status and a potential pathway to permanent residency.  Initially praised by the international community, the TPS has faced challenges. In 2023, the Colombian government took steps to address these challenges and extend protection to migrants in irregular situations. A key development was the introduction by Migración Colombia (the migration authority) of a new temporary identification document/certificate for those applying for a PPT. This document grants irregular migrants immediate access to essential public services and allows them to temporarily enter and leave the country while they await the issuance of their PPT. Unfortunately, this program has expired. However, government officials are working on spinoff programs to protect children. Colombian authorities are also now engaging with the Biden Administration's proposed establishment of regional migration hubs in Colombia.[27]


To effectively safeguard US security interests and foster robust regional partnerships in response to irregular migration from Colombia, the US must adopt a multi-pronged strategy informed by an understanding of the issue's complexity. Supporting Colombia's continued peacebuilding process remains a central pillar. Full implementation of the 2016 peace accord, particularly in rural development, security provision, and anti-corruption initiatives, is essential for reducing the chronic instability that fuels transnational criminal networks and associated security threats. Furthermore, targeted investments in economic empowerment programs are crucial. These programs should prioritize sustainable livelihood creation and formalize the informal economic sector, reducing the desperation that feeds migrant flows and the criminal enterprises that capitalize on them. The US should champion these efforts in collaboration with the Colombian government, working to develop viable alternatives to illicit coca cultivation, a key driver of regional instability.

The US is uniquely positioned to drive regional solutions, but success hinges on treating Colombia as an equal partner and drawing upon its extensive experience in migration management. Capacity-building initiatives for transit nations must be a priority, ensuring humane border control and migrant reception practices. The US should further leverage multilateral organizations like the OAS to facilitate the development of standardized regional protocols, encouraging humane treatment of migrants and an equitable distribution of responsibilities. Lastly, strategic communication is paramount. The US needs to proactively counter harmful narratives that fuel anti-migrant sentiments, promoting a nuanced understanding of the challenges within Colombia and the broader region. This approach fosters an environment of shared responsibility and cooperation necessary to address the complicated issue of irregular migration.


Donald Ehrman
Mr. Ehrman is a Department of Defense Civilian currently assigned as a Strategy and Campaigns Planner for INDOPACOM at Camp HM Smith in Hawaii. He is a 2024 graduate of Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He was previously assigned to Vance AFB, Oklahoma, as Director 71st Force Support Squadron and has served with the Air Force for more than 40 years in a variety of positions. He began his career as a Weapons Systems Specialist in the United States Air Force and was assigned to various bases across the globe.  Mr. Ehrman has served in command positions in Det 1 18 Support Group, Okuma Okinawa and Misawa AB, in Japan; Lajes Feild, Portugal; Barksdale AFB, Louisiana; and Vance AFB, Oklahoma.

This research was done as part of the Air War College Regional Security Studies Seminar and Field Study


[1] Justice for Colombia, "Colombia's Armed Conflict," accessed March 19, 2024,

[2] Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2023: Colombia," accessed March 19, 2024.

[3] WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), "A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia's Peace Accord after Five Years," accessed March 20, 2024.

[4] Latin America Bureau, "Colombia: Peace Must Overcome the Legacy of Fear," accessed March 19, 2024. 

[6] Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, "Colombia," accessed March 19, 2024.

[7] Transparency International, accessed March 20, 2024.

[8] Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín," Access to Land and Peasant Property Rights: Walking through the Labyrinths," Colombian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. 1, 2016, pp. 91-116.

[9] Shultz JM, Ceballos ÁM, Espinel Z, Oliveros SR, Fonseca MF, Florez LJ. "Internal Displacement in Colombia: Fifteen Distinguishing Features." Disaster Health. 2014 Jan 16;2(1):13-24. 

[10] International Labour Office, Decent Work and the Informal Economy (Geneva: International Labour Office, 2002), accessed March 20, 2024,

[11] Mauricio Cárdenas and Carolina Mejía, "INFORMALITY IN COLOMBIA, Enhancing Worker Welfare and Firm Productivity," accessed March 19, 2024,

[12] Oxfam, Unearthed: Land, Power and Inequality in Latin America (Oxfam, 2016), accessed March 20, 2024.

[13] "Economic and Social Consequences of Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking," United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 1998, accessed March 20, 2024,

[14] Daniel Mejía, "Peace and the Illicit Economy in Colombia." accessed March 20, 2024, NACLA Report on the Americas 47, no. 2 (2014): 25-29.

[15] "Colombia: Environmental Impacts of Coca Cultivation, Cocaine Processing, and Aerial Spraying", Office of National Drug Control Policy." accessed March 20, 2024,

[16] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). "Out of Sight: The Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia's Pacific Region." September 2021, accessed March 20, 2024,

[17] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). "Out of Sight: The Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia's Pacific Region." September 2021, accessed March 20, 2024,

[18] Washington Office on Latin America, Migration, Country by Country, at the U.S.-Mexico Border, accessed March 20, 2024.

[19] OECD iLibrary, International Migration Outlook 2023, accessed 20 March 2024.  

[20] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Government Announces Sweeping New Actions to Manage Regional Migration.” Accessed March 21, 2024,

[21] Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, "Regional Migration Hubs in the Western Hemisphere," accessed July 15, 2023.

[22] June S. Beittel, "U.S.-Colombia Security Relations: Future Prospects in Brief," Congressional Research Service, February 14, 2023.

[25] Bancamia, website; SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje), accessed March 20, 2024.

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