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

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

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.
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Colombia: Giving women strength

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Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

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