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Venezuela: mission registers fleeing Colombians in Zulia border state

Briefing Notes, 21 May 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 21 May 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Over the past week, we have been carrying out an assessment mission in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, where hundreds of indigenous Wayúu people have fled from fighting and massacres by illegal armed groups in Colombia.

We have registered 306 indigenous Wayúu who have sought refuge in Venezuela, although the total number who have fled may be as high as 500 according to the indigenous leaders. It is difficult to get a precise count as many of those who fled have sought shelter in the homes of family members, and some are reluctant to come forward and to be identified. The majority of the displaced are women and children.

The Wayúu fled their native community of Bahia Portete in La Guajira, Colombia, over the past several weeks, following armed attacks and massacres by illegal armed groups, in which at least 30 people reportedly were killed and another 60 are still missing.

Given their strong cultural attachments to their native territory, approximately 40% of the displaced have expressed a desire to return to their homes. However, as the security situation remains precarious, there is no immediate prospect of facilitating the return of these people to their lands.

The scarcity of resources and space as well as the general impoverishment of the indigenous communities are presenting significant problems for both the displaced and their hosts. We are working with UNICEF, PAHO, the Red Cross, and other NGOs and government authorities to organize the urgent delivery of food, medicine and other supplies to the affected persons. The President of Venezuela's National Refugee Commission also attended a meeting of the organizations involved in helping this group on Wednesday, and agreed with UNHCR on the need to provide protection to the victims of the Colombian conflict.

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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

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

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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