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Colombians in Costa Rica vote for their homeland

News Stories, 14 June 2002

© G.Serrano
Pilar de Riano, wife of the Colombian Ambassador to Costa Rica, casting her vote in San Jose.

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica (UNHCR) The political "party" started early in the morning, when people started forming lines outside San José's Museo de los Niños, or Children's Museum. By mid-day, the music was blasting, the food was flowing and people were walking around in T-shirts and baseball caps in the colours of Colombia's national flag.

They were far from home, but that did not stop the Colombian diaspora in Costa Rica from making their voices heard in the May 26 Colombian elections.

"This is a democratic party," said Pilar de Riano, the Colombian Ambassador's wife. "Colombians, who like to 'rumba', have come together to vote for a better future, for peace and stability, and also to share a moment with all their friends and families, far from their homes."

In all, 4,443 Colombians in Costa Rica registered to vote in the elections, among them some refugees.

"We are eager to vote," said Ricardo Angel, a Colombian refugee who came to Costa Rica with his wife four years ago. "We came to contribute, although far from home, to build a new country. We believe things can change in Colombia."

"We had to leave everything behind and start over here," added his wife. "Things have not been easy, but we expect that a new government will create the conditions to return home one day."

Four decades of fighting between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have driven tens of thousands of Colombians into neighbouring countries. Currently, there are about 5,000 in Costa Rica, 7,700 in Ecuador, 2,400 in Panama, 8,400 in Venezuela, and 3,000 in Peru.

Jairo Beltran left his family and everything he owned in Colombia. "I left my wife and children in Cali before coming to Costa Rica," he said. "It has been very painful to me to think that they could be endangered or that at any moment they could be kidnapped or killed. My wife's brother was kidnapped two years ago and nobody has heard about him since."

He added, "Things haven't been easy since my arrival to this country. I have encountered some problems finding a job and making some money for me and for my family in Colombia. But I don't lose hope of seeing them again and of being reunited as a family. I am voting today with a lot of hope in the future."

Not everyone is hopeful. Hugo Baeza, a 27-year-old Colombian who left Colombia's second-largest city of Medellín for Costa Rica last year, said, "I will not vote and I am sure many of my compatriots here, in Colombia or elsewhere think the same as I do."

He explained, "Things will not change in Colombia, and the fact that we vote or not will not change anything at all. Forty years of armed conflict and the many political elections in between have fixed nothing. On the contrary, we continue to watch our families flee the country, and those who don't have the means to flee have become displaced within Colombia."

The Colombian election was eventually won by Álvaro Uribe Velez, a former governor and mayor of Medellín.

By Giovanni Monge
UNHCR Costa Rica




UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

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

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