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New ruling allows bank credit for refugees in Costa Rica

News Stories, 10 May 2005

© ©UNHCR/G.Serrano
National bank loans will boost the integration efforts of refugees in Costa Rica, including these Colombian refugees in San José.

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica, May 10 (UNHCR) For two years, Ricardo Angel tried to get a bank loan to start up his furniture workshop, but was told that as a Colombian refugee in Costa Rica, he lacked the necessary residence identity card to qualify.

Now, thanks to his perseverance, many other refugees will have access to credit to facilitate their integration in the country. On Friday, the Constitutional Chamber of the Republic of Costa Rica ruled that the rejection of Angel's 2003 loan application was discriminatory and violated his rights. The Chamber further declared that refugees are entitled to receive credits from national banks, noting that they are considered temporary residents in Costa Rica under the country's migration law.

"I am glad to wake up today and hear this positive news," said Angel. "Living in a state that respects the law gives me hope for the future. My rights have been respected. I will no longer feel discriminated against when requesting a bank credit. I can now go on with my furniture workshop."

Angel has come along a long way from Colombia. He arrived in Costa Rica about five years ago with his wife and daughter, armed with nothing but years of experience working with wood, metal and glass. They did not know what to expect in exile, but knew they could not stay amid the violence of their homeland.

"I remember when the plane started to descend on San José's airport, when the whiteness of the clouds started to disappear and the first view of what would be our new home suddenly appeared in front of our eyes," Angel recalled. "There were tears in my wife's eyes. I was afraid too, but the fear I felt this time was not like the fear we used to have in our country. Many thoughts crossed my mind while we were approaching that unknown land. I held my wife's hand as we prepared to land."

Like the Angel family, most of the 8,000 Colombian refugees in Costa Rica arrived between 2000 and 2002, although the influx continues today. Costa Rica hosts the second-largest concentration of Colombian refugees in Latin America, after Ecuador.

"The fact that most of the Colombian refugees have been here for almost five years has created various challenges for the authorities, the host community, UNHCR, its counterparts and on the refugees themselves," said UNHCR Representative in Costa Rica James Kovar. "This sort of protracted refugee situation has posed a tremendous challenge in the local integration of the refugees in Costa Rica, where the few options available, together with the lack of information in key services on refugee rights, have created barriers to durable solutions for some refugees."

Angel remembered the problems he faced in the beginning. "It was hard to start up. Nobody wanted to employ a 50-year-old Colombian refugee. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous misconception of Colombians in this country. We only want to live in peace and raise our family. We don't want to hurt anyone here, we ourselves were harmed before coming, so why would we want to continue the violence?"

Unable to find a job, he tried to make a living doing what he knew best making furniture but didn't have the seed money to start. All the credit institutions he approached turned him down with the same excuse: "Refugees are not residents, you are not entitled to credits."

Indeed, one of the biggest problems faced by refugees in Costa Rica is the lack of knowledge among key service providers. "Hardly anyone in this country knows what being a refugee means," said Carmen, another Colombian refugee. "I have shown my refugee ID card in some banks, I have tried to access some public services and nobody knows that it is a legal document issued by the government's migration office."

Last week's ruling that refugees can apply for loans with their refugee ID card will hopefully put an end to such problems.

"This ruling is a step towards the local integration of the refugee population in Costa Rica," said UNHCR's Kovar. "We now have an extraordinary precedent that opens wider possibilities to the refugee community in the country."

The UN refugee agency itself has been running a micro-credit programme in Costa Rica since 2002. To receive a loan, the refugee must demonstrate a strong business plan, client base and guarantees. A site visit is then conducted by project staff to further determine project feasibility.

Some 150 families have benefited from the UNHCR programme, starting businesses like bakeries, restaurants, beauty salons, crafts workshops, candy production, music groups and a recording studio, among others.

A recent socio-economic impact study of the project showed that many families have been able to move from single rooms to apartments, and then to houses as a result of their new economic self-sufficiency. The average number of employees per business doubles six months after receiving a loan.

An initiative is currently underway to increase programme depth and breadth by including more vulnerable refugees as beneficiaries and off-setting increased risk with a group lending methodology and a business community mentor network.

By Giovanni Monge
UNHCR Costa Rica

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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.

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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.

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