• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Resettled Colombians go Dutch

News Stories, 13 June 2005

© UNHCR/D.Kramers
A family of resettled Colombian refugees from Ecuador in their living quarters in the Dutch reception centre of Apeldoorn.

AMERSFOORT, Netherlands, June 13 (UNHCR) For 18 Colombian refugees who had initially fled to Ecuador, "dank u wel" thank you are among the first Dutch words they learnt upon their recent arrival in the Netherlands. These particularly vulnerable refugees, who were selected under the Dutch resettlement programme, are grateful for the opportunity to get on with their lives in an unfamiliar but safe environment.

The reception centre at Amersfoort in Central Netherlands is the latest stop in the long journey of these Colombian families. Within a few months, they should have their own home somewhere in the Netherlands, a safe haven after their escape from war-torn Colombia.

The story of Raúl and his family is representative of these refugees. Over a typical Dutch lunch of cheese sandwiches and buttermilk in Amersfoort, he explains, "The violence of the guerrilla rebels and the paramilitary forced us to run away. We only had the clothes on our backs when we arrived in Ecuador. There, our life was very difficult. There was no work for us, and Colombians are discriminated against because the violence in our country gives us a bad name, even though most of us are good, hardworking people."

He adds, "But most of all, we were afraid of guerrillas and paramilitaries infiltrating from Colombia. Even in Ecuador, we could not feel safe. We were still getting caught in a conflict that was none of our business."

For some, it may take some time before the calm of the Netherlands soothes the traumatic experiences of the past. "This week, I went for my first bicycle ride near the centre," says Yolanda, a mother of five. "It was beautiful to be cycling in the green fields. But I didn't feel comfortable. I was always afraid that someone might suddenly jump out from the bushes to harm me."

The Netherlands have a long-standing tradition of offering resettlement. This is a crucial way out for refugees who are desperately in need of protection but cannot find safety in the first country where they sought refuge. Under the European Union's Hague Programme that was adopted under the Dutch Presidency, the Union is committed to an EU-wide resettlement scheme among its 25 member states.

Every year, the Netherlands seeks to resettle a quota of 500 "invited refugees". This year, the Dutch resettlement programme is forging ahead following the resumption of official missions to select resettlement cases in the field in cooperation with UNHCR. A first mission to Uganda paved the way for the resettlement in January of 150 refugees from Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A second Dutch delegation headed for Ecuador, where they interviewed 100 people who were presented for resettlement by UNHCR.

During a recent visit to the Amersfoort centre, a UNHCR delegation discussed the reception of the Colombian newcomers. Among the issues raised were the availability of documentation for resettled refugees, and their housing in a reception centre amidst asylum seekers who, unlike the Colombians, do not know yet if they will have a future in the Netherlands or if they may have to leave the country. Both these problems need quick resolution.

For Esteban, one of the resettled Colombians, Holland was light years away from the squalid neighbourhood where he lived with his family in Quito. "We didn't know anything about this country. I went to the city library to find out more, but they didn't have any books on the Netherlands. Finally, we found most of our information on Internet."

That led to some surprising discoveries: for instance, that half of the country is below sea level.

"One of the refugees was a bit worried about this. He wanted to know what the Dutch do when there's a tsunami," says Nicolien Rengers, head of the Amersfoort reception centre, who participated in the mission to Quito. "But another refugee was in a hurry to come and asked to be resettled before April 30, so that he and his family would be on time for the festivities of the Queen's birthday, our national holiday!"

As things turned out, they'll have to wait until next year to celebrate the Queen's birthday: the first group of 37 Colombians arrived in the Netherlands on May 27 and was hosted by the Dutch reception agency COA 18 in Amersfoort and the rest in two other cities. There, they receive further orientation courses on Dutch society, while the centre is arranging for the children to attend school.

The resettled Colombians are grateful for what they have received in the Netherlands to date. "We have our living quarters here and we receive food and medical care," says Raúl. "But if you are given everything, you get spoilt and you might not make enough efforts to look further. We are used to doing something for what we get. That's important for us, because it makes us feel useful."

Esteban is already doing his bit in the centre. "I do some menial jobs here, I just signed a contract to repaint the rooms. So now I'm a real painter, like Vincent van Gogh!"

He adds, "In Colombia, I was a salesman in a hardware shop for 18 years. In Ecuador, I did all sorts of jobs to support my family. I'm still confused about what I would do here. I'd like to follow a workshop to develop my skills. My dream is to set up my own business, so that I can offer job opportunities to others."

© UNHCR/D.Kramers
Lunch at the Amersfoort reception centre.

"I'll come and work in your firm," says Raúl jokingly, "and I know the others here will too!"

Their expectations of a new life in the Netherlands are mainly influenced by their past experiences. "Most of all, we want a calm and peaceful life, so that we can build a future for our children," says Raúl's wife Pilar. "We'll go where they send us. But I hope it'll be a small, quiet village, somewhere in the Netherlands!"

By Diederik Kramers in Amersfoort, Netherlands




UNHCR country pages


An alternative for those who cannot go home, made possible by UNHCR and governments.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

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

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

Colombia is the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. More than two million people have been internally displaced during the conflict, including 200,000 persons in 2002 alone. Tens of thousands of other Colombians have sought refuge abroad.

UNHCR provides legal assistance to these internally displaced persons (IDPs), supports their associations and on the national level has helped to strengthen government programmes and relevant legislation. Specialised agency programmes include education, psychological and social rehabilitation projects for children and their families and assistance to women who head households.

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.
High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.
Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015Play video

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015

The Danish photographer visited UNHCR's work in Colombia and met with women who show great strength and courage in one of the world's most protracted conflict-ridden hot spots.