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.

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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.

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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