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Feature: Colombia's poorest region benefits from humanitarian action

News Stories, 31 March 2003

© UNHCR/W.Spindler
La Gloria urban school in Quibdó, where UNHCR, UNICEF, Corporacion Opcion Legal and the local dioceses are implementing a Pedagogy and Protection project.

QUIBDÓ, Colombia (UNHCR) The Atrato river meanders slowly through the vast tropical jungle of western Colombia, oblivious to the human flow around it.

For years, irregular armed groups, guerrillas and paramilitaries have waged a war over this waterway, fighting to control the most important route for the trafficking of arms, drugs and contraband in north-western Colombia.

The losers in this struggle are the civilian population, composed mainly of indigenous and Afro-Colombian subsistence farmers and fishermen. Many have lost their lives in massacres, such as occurred in Bojayá in May 2002 when 117 civilians, many of them children, were killed in a church where they had sought refuge. Thousands fled to Quibdó, the main urban centre of the Chocó region in western Colombia.

The Chocó region is considered the poorest and one of the most remote in the country. And of all the cities in Colombia, Quibdó has the sad privilege of hosting the largest proportion of internally displaced persons (IDPs) relative to its size.

Following the Bojayá massacre, UN agencies have worked to provide a co-ordinated response to the ensuing humanitarian crisis in the area. The Chocó region has been chosen as one of the first to benefit from the inter-agency initiative, the Humanitarian Action Plan.

© UNHCR/W.Spindler
Quibdó city in the Chocó region hosts the largest proportion of internally displaced Colombians relative to its size.

On March 20, the various UN agencies working in the region brought Colombian government representatives, local authorities and officials from eight donor governments to Quibdó to see the humanitarian plan at work on the ground. Local, national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also joined the visit.

The officials visited several projects under the Humanitarian Action Plan, including La Gloria urban school in the Barrio Obrero, a working-class district of Quibdó. Most of the 15,000 inhabitants are IDPs. UNHCR, in co-ordination with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Catholic dioceses of Quibdó, will implement a Pedagogy and Protection project that will benefit 1,200 children. The project trains teachers on the specific needs of displaced children and strengthens schools and parent associations helping these children. UNHCR will also contribute to the construction of two new schoolrooms this year.

For the displaced children and youth in Quibdó, integrating in school isn't the only challenge. They also face the risk of being recruited by irregular armed groups. To help provide activities and a sense of community for young people, the refugee agency has financed the construction of a cultural centre for displaced youth, some of whom helped to build the centre.

Another serious problem affecting many of the displaced people and those at risk of displacement in the region is the lack of identity documents. In 2002, UNHCR financed six documentation campaigns in Chocó that reached over 7,000 people.

Other ongoing projects in the region include a fishing project that benefits 850 families, for which the refugee agency helped to link up the communities with funding sources and contributed outboard motors for the fishing boats.

When displaced communities are eventually able to return home, UNHCR accompanies them and follows up on their wellbeing after their return. In 2002, the agency participated in various return movements of displaced people to their homes in Chocó, in co-ordination with local authorities, the church, the communities and other UN agencies.

These efforts should continue in 2003. In the meantime, UNHCR and other UN agencies will continue to focus on this isolated, at-risk area in an effort to bring some stability and hope to the lives of those uprooted and affected by the decades of conflict in Colombia.

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Struggling with the threat of extinction

Among Colombia's many indigenous groups threatened with extinction, few are in a riskier situation than the Tule. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia.

One group of 500 live in Choco's Unguia municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is rich in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

Many tribe members have sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Choco. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands and gave up their traditional way of life.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns, and the refugee agency has helped draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently.

Struggling with the threat of extinction

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

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

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