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More Colombians fleeing to Venezuela's cities, says UNHCR

News Stories, 30 March 2005

© Cáritas/G.Graterol
A tailoring course for refugee women, part of the income generation programme for urban refugees.

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 30 (UNHCR) Rising numbers of refugees and asylum seekers are moving to urban Venezuela, citing security concerns and economic difficulties in the border region. While isolated border communities continue to be the first destination of people fleeing the Colombian conflict, UNHCR has noticed a considerable increase in the number of individuals who seek protection in bigger cities like Maracaibo and Caracas.

In Caracas, the UN refugee agency registered more than 700 asylum seekers last year, almost double the number registered in 2003. These asylum seekers come from a wide range of countries, including Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but up to 85 percent are victims of the Colombian conflict.

"In the cities, they feel more secure by being unidentified within a larger population," explains UNHCR programme officer Andres Ramirez. "They also believe they can find more economic opportunities to survive there."

The profile of asylum seekers has changed, according to Mayris Balza, a representative of UNHCR's implementing partner, Cáritas de Venezuela. The fact that large urban centres might provide more employment opportunities for trained professionals is also an important factor in their decision. "The first thing they say is 'I want to work', yet these people are not farmers and they have different expectations and needs in terms of lifestyle," says Balza.

"The people we receive in our office normally have high social profiles in Colombia. The majority are professionals, human rights activists, union leaders or lawyers," she notes. "They come to the cities because they no longer feel safe at the border. They fear that irregular armed groups can easily identify and persecute them in these areas and that's why they choose to relocate to urban centres."

Hector Fabio Rojano*, a Colombian asylum seeker, was a truck driver in the village of Codazzi, but had to flee in 2001 to Ureña because of the pressure of many different armed groups. "The persecution that I suffered made me flee across the border, there again I was threatened, probably I was still too close to Colombia, so I decided to come to Caracas," he says.

Refugee Luuisa Patricia Rodriguez* feels that the border communities are not very safe. "I wanted to get away from Colombia as far as possible, but I did not manage, Colombia was still just on the other side of the border," she says. "If they wanted, they could also locate us here. I still felt the fear."

Rodriguez shares her difficulties in finding work, even with the certificates issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "When I look for work, they ask for my cédula [Venezuelan identity card]. I tried to work as a hotel maid, but without legal documents, they would not hire me. My husband does not earn enough money, and we cannot afford to pay for the necessary fees in order to obtain identity cards."

"There is a general belief that work opportunities largely depend on the size of a community the more people live in a certain area, the more opportunities may appear," Ramirez says. Furthermore, "refugees usually think there are more and better facilities in urban areas and it might be easier to advance one's education with the support of existing government social and education programmes." Unfortunately, simply moving to the cities does not protect refugees from problems like discrimination, xenophobia and unemployment that they faced in the rural areas near the border.

"In Venezuela, the Colombians are generally misperceived as criminals, drug traffickers or members of illegal armed groups," says Balza. "Therefore, due to the current economic situation in Venezuela and the lack of official documentation, it is difficult for the refugees to find a house or a job."

Asylum seeker Rojano faced similar problems trying to obtain a Venezuelan driver's license. He could not apply for it without an official identity card.

UNHCR is working with Cáritas de Venezuela to help urban asylum seekers and refugees like Rodriguez and Rojano to escape this vicious cycle and overcome their problems. The agencies offer legal advice on asylum procedures to help them claim their basic rights. They also provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs in the areas of health and emergency shelter. In addition, asylum seekers and refugees benefit from income-generating activities supported by micro-credit programmes, especially in urban areas where job opportunities are scarce. In the past, these types of projects were limited to people living in the border areas.

© UNHCR/G.Guerrero
UNHCR staff visiting urban asylum seekers in Petare, a slum area in Caracas.

"Urban refugees have proved to be very resilient and prefer to work hard to achieve self reliance rather than to become dependent on humanitarian assistance," concludes Ramirez.

* Not their real names

By Grace Guerrero
with inputs from Margaret Buhajczyk
UNHCR Regional Office in Venezuela




UNHCR country pages

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

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

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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