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Panama: follow-up on expelled Colombians

Briefing Notes, 25 April 2003

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 25 April 2003, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR continues to follow up on the situation of more than 100 Colombians, most of them children, deported from Panama earlier this week. On Thursday, we sent a letter to the Panamanian authorities reiterating UNHCR's concern over the incident and stressing that returns should be voluntary.

The families deported on Monday reported that Panamanian immigration authorities and the Panamanian National Guard arrived in Punusa, Panama, where the Colombians had sought safety from the conflict in their homeland. The authorities reportedly told the Colombians they were moving them to a safer place where they would receive assistance. When some of them refused to move or tried to escape, they were manhandled by the National Guard and taken by force into helicopters. They were then taken to Zapzurro, on the Colombian side of the border.

UNHCR is now following up on three cases of families who were separated during the deportation, including one three-year old girl who remained behind with her Panamanian father while her Colombian mother was sent back. An adolescent, whose parents were among those deported, fled from the deportation operation and her whereabouts are now unknown. An older teenager also remains behind in Panama while her family members were taken to Colombia.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, UNHCR has been providing food, and soap and other hygiene articles to the deported families. Most of the people had to leave all their belongings behind in Panama. Some of the families have decided to go back to their areas of origin further inland in Colombia's Chocó province from the coastal town of Zapzurro. UNHCR began to assist those going back to their home areas on Thursday, providing a boat to transport them by river. A second boat was provided by the church. UNHCR is coordinating with the church, the Colombian Ombudsman and the Red de Solidaridad Social (the Colombian government entity responsible for displaced people) on the movement from Zapzurro further inland.

UNHCR continues to monitor the situation in Panama's remote Darién region which hosts most of the Colombians who have sought safety in that country as well as the situation and the well-being of the deported families in Colombia. We are requesting the Panamanian authorities to keep UNHCR informed about any further such return plans and to ensure that returns are voluntary, safe and respect the dignity of the refugees.




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.