Colombian indigenous leaders flee to Panama

Briefing Notes, 19 May 2006

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 19 May 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Seven leaders of an indigenous group recently forced from their ancestral lands by one of Colombia's irregular armed groups, have fled with their families to neighbouring Panama because of continuous threats and fears for their safety. On Tuesday, the group of 47 people arrived on three small boats in the Darién region of Panama's Pacific coast after a difficult crossing on rough seas.

The Director of UNHCR´s Bureau for the Americas, Philippe Lavanchy, who was in Panama on an official mission this week, was informed of the group's arrival by the national body for refugee affairs (ONPAR). He immediately went to the Darién region and held talks with the authorities to ensure the newcomers would be allowed to stay and seek asylum in Panama. The Ministry of Government and Justice later confirmed that, in accordance with international law, the 47 would be allowed to remain.

The asylum seekers are members of Colombia's Wounaan indigenous group. In early April, hundreds of Wounaans fled their ancestral territories in western Colombia after two of their leaders were killed within 48 hours. They took refuge in the small town of Istmina where Lavanchy, who was on mission in Colombia at the time, first met them. He negotiated with the local authorities to improve the group's living conditions in Istmina and heard the concerns of the displaced community. Among them were several people who had received direct death threats from the irregular armed group that had caused their flight.

The seven leaders who arrived in Panama this week with their families were part of the group of people that had received direct death threats. They said they eventually crossed the border because they felt their safety could not be guaranteed within Colombia. UNHCR´s office in Panama will provide the newcomers with legal and humanitarian aid as needed. A UNHCR staff member will stay in the Darién region to provide emergency assistance and make sure the group is allowed to remain and receives adequate protection.

During his visit to Panama, Lavanchy also met President Martin Torrijos Espino, to discuss the situation of the group as well as review refugee affairs in Panama generally. The majority of refugees and people of concern to UNHCR in Panama live either in Panama City or in the Darién region, a vast and inhospitable jungle that forms the border between the two countries. Many of those in the Darién are Colombian indigenous people who have been forced by the violence to leave their territories on the other side of the border.

UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of the conflict on Colombia's indigenous communities and warned that some smaller groups may face extinction as a result of widespread displacement from their ancestral lands.




UNHCR country pages

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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

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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.
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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.