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Heavy rains bring misery to Venezuelan communities hosting Colombian refugees

News Stories, 18 February 2005

© UNHCR/A.Simancas
UNHCR staff bring relief aid to flood victims in Venezuela.

UREÑA, Venezuela, Feb. 16 (UNHCR) Children roused from sleep first noticed the rising flood water lapping at their knees at Sabana Larga, a shanty town in the Venezuelan border municipality of Ureña hosting a hundred people, most of them Colombian refugees.

"They began shouting and woke us up," said one resident. "We took whatever belongings we could with us and rushed out of the house to look for help."

By week's end the worst drenching in recent years had send the residents of Sabana Larga fleeing to a school for safety as the nearby Táchira River overflowed its banks. Venezuela's civil defence authorities helped in the rescue effort. All told, flooding and landslides left 80 people dead and brought misery to more than 176,000 people whose homes in Venezuela were damaged. Another 40,000 were affected in the Colombian side since the rains began on Feb. 5.

"This year the rains were worse than ever," said one Colombian asylum seeker. "We were deep in mud up to our knees. I almost lost my eldest daughter. It was still dark and I had to carry the youngest children with me."

"We visited the neighbourhoods where known asylum seekers lived and found that the floods were devastating," said UNHCR's Shant Dermegerditchian, who led a relief team to the area. "In Sabana Larga, the homes of the asylum seekers were completely destroyed. The entire area is covered in mud and is currently inaccessible."

UNHCR, together with its partner Caritas, provided several dozen affected families with emergency kits including mattresses, water containers, blankets, cooking utensils, cutlery, soap, babies' nappies and other items. In addition, the Venezuelan Red Cross issued hygiene kits to the asylum seekers and the Ureña Town council handed out food.

"The most important concern in the aftermath of the flooding is to find adequate housing for these persons. Furthermore, a general assessment of the needs of the affected population, both asylum seekers and the local population, is required in light of the recovery work that needs to be accomplished and to determine UNHCR's contribution in this respect," said Dermegerditchian.

A UNHCR mission will travel shortly south of Lake Maracaibo, another area where many Colombian asylum seekers live, to evaluate the situation, identify basic needs and assess how UNHCR can assist the local authorities in dealing with this catastrophe.

By William Spindler in Bogota, Colombia
and Andrea Simancas in San Cristóbal, Venezuela

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UNHCR country pages

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

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: 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.
Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.