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Haya de la Torre, Victor Raùl

Prominent Refugees, 22 February 1895

Victor Raùl Haya de la Torre

Victor Raùl Haya de la Torre

Although he never held the reins of government and spent much of his life in exile, Victor Haya is remembered as a fighter for democracy and workers' rights whose influence spread far outside his native Peru. He is also famous for having taken refuge in the Colombian embassy in Lima and remaining there for more than five years.

Haya was born into a formerly wealthy, provincial family. He studied law at the University of San Marcos in Lima the oldest university in the Americas and became involved in student politics. He spearheaded university reforms and played a leading role campaigning for an eight-hour workday and the rights of the Peruvian trade union movement.

He was imprisoned for his political views in 1923, and forced by the Peruvian government to board a ship bound for Panama, his first place of exile. He was later to spend time in Cuba, the Soviet Union and Mexico. In Mexico, he launched the Allianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) aimed at uniting Latin America against "imperialism". He wrote "Anti-Imperialism and the APRA" from a hotel room in Mexico.

In 1928, Haya was in Guatemala, rallying support for General Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua. He was threatened, persecuted, and, in effect, banished from the Latin American continent. He was compelled to request diplomatic asylum in the Mexican embassy. He went to Panama, but the authorities refused to let him disembark, so he was forced to continue to Europe.

In 1931, Haya was allowed to return to Peru and stood unsuccessfully for the presidency. The following year, he was sent back to jail at a time when the "Apristas" clashed violently with the military in Trujillo. He won widespread international support from leading figures of the day, including his personal friend, Albert Einstein.

Nevertheless, once freed, he was obliged to go underground and was unable to contest elections in 1945. Nonetheless, his party succeeded in winning several parliamentary seats. But the democratic experience in Peru was to last a mere three years, and was ended by a coup d'état in 1948.

On January 4, 1949, Haya sought asylum in the Colombian embassy in Lima. The Colombian government considered him a political refugee and recognised his need for asylum (the official documents use both these terms). It requested safe-conduct for Haya to enable him to leave Peruvian territory. The Peruvian government, however, insisted that he was a common criminal. The legal arguments over his status went as far as the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The Court' s first ruling was in favour of Peru but in a second ruling requested by Bogota, the Court ruled that Colombia was not obliged to give up the refugee.

The dispute reached a deadlock and it was five years and four months later that the Peruvian government granted him safe conduct to leave the embassy and the country. By this time, the building was surrounded by troops and ditches in anticipation of public demonstrations by Haya' s supporters.

It was not until the 1970s that the situation in Peru stabilised. In 1978, Haya was elected as President of the Constitutional Assembly. Despite his advanced age, he skilfully steered the body through the drafting of a new constitution, and managed to sign the final text just a few days before his death in 1979.

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Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees