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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

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

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