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Hundreds of indigenous Wayúu flee into Venezuela

News Stories, 21 May 2004

© UNHCR/V.Olsen
A victim of the recent violence in Colombia finds safety in neighbouring Venezuela.

MARACAIBO, Venezuela, May 21 (UNHCR) Hundreds of indigenous Wayúu people have sought refuge in north-western Venezuela after fleeing brutal attacks by armed groups in Colombia.

The UN refugee agency has registered 306 Wayúu people in Venezuela's border state of Zulia after an assessment mission that ended on Friday. The majority of them are women and children, and numbers may be as high as 400 to 500, according to indigenous leaders. Many of the displaced have sought shelter in the homes of relatives and are reluctant to identify themselves because they fear attracting too much attention.

The Wayúu fled their native community of Bahia Portete in La Guajira, Colombia, following armed attacks and massacres by illegal armed groups in the last month. In addition to those who crossed into Venezuela, another 500 were displaced within Colombia.

"The paramilitaries entered in the morning some 30 dressed as civilians and followed by another 100 in camouflage uniforms," said one of the displaced people in Venezuela. "They all had weapons, AK-47s, and went from house to house grabbing whoever couldn't run away. They pulled my mom, who is an old lady, out of the house while hitting and insulting her. Once they got her outside, they killed her. That's what they did with many women and even children."

"My two small children were waiting for me in the car when the paramilitaries arrived," recalled another. "I heard shots outside and, when I came out, I saw them shooting and setting the car on fire. I couldn't do anything to save them. I barely escaped with my life. Now I am here in Maracaibo, surviving, but they killed my children and now I don't have anything in my life."

"Our families were tortured and killed and we haven't even been able to bury them according to our customs. For us, the Wayúu, it's very important that our dead are buried in the family cemetery, so that they can stay with us."

"Each night, I have nightmares about the things they did to us. I don't think I'll ever be able to smile. They even managed to take that away from us."

Cross-border family and ethnic ties have helped Colombia's Wayúu people to seek shelter in the homes of relatives and friends in Venezuela. They can enter and move freely between the two countries which share a 2,020-km border because the concept of indigenous bi-nationality is a constitutional right in Venezuela.

"They are victims of the Colombian conflict, and although they may not formally request asylum, they still have the need to receive international protection," stated UNHCR Regional Representative María Virginia Trimarco.

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

In the meantime, both the displaced people and their hosts are feeling the strain of scarce resources and space in a border area facing drought, social and economic problems.

"Here in Venezuela our fellow Wayúus have taken us into their homes. We survived thanks to them," said one of the displaced people. "But there are days when the only things we have to eat are mangoes boiled in water. The children are malnourished."

"There is also not enough space for so many new people, and most of the refugees have to sleep on the ground outdoors," reported UNHCR Assistant Field Officer Vemund Olsen. "The Wayúu use hammocks for sleeping, and expressed this as one of their most immediate needs."

"We need everything," added a displaced Wayúu. "We had to leave everything when we left Portete. We have six families living in one little house. We don't have clothes or hammocks to sleep in. For the Wayúu, sleeping on a dirt floor is like sleeping with animals. Never in our lives have we had to ask anyone for anything. We lived our lives in dignity. Now it's urgent that you help us."

Ensuring the protection of the Colombian indigenous community is a top priority for UNHCR. On Wednesday, the agency and the Venezuelan Red Cross met with 30 government and non-governmental agencies to develop a plan of action to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced people. At the meeting, the President of the National Refugee Commission agreed with UNHCR on the need to provide protection to the victims of the Colombian conflict.

The refugee agency is currently working with the UN Children's Fund, the Pan American Health Organization, the Venezuelan Red Cross and local authorities to organise the urgent delivery of food, medicine and other supplies to the affected people.

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UNHCR country pages

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.

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