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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.




UNHCR country pages

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

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

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015Play video

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015

The Danish photographer visited UNHCR's work in Colombia and met with women who show great strength and courage in one of the world's most protracted conflict-ridden hot spots.
Colombia: Indigenous People Under ThreatPlay video

Colombia: Indigenous People Under Threat

Violence in parts of Colombia is threatening the existence of the country's indigenous people. This is the tale of one such group, the Tule.
Colombia: Giving women strengthPlay video

Colombia: Giving women strength

In the volatile southern Colombian region of Putumayo, forced displacement remains a real and daily threat. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable. A project by UNHCR focuses on helping women to adapt and learn about their rights while they are displaced.