Panama: First indigenous Colombians get refugee status

Briefing Notes, 15 December 2006

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 December 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In a landmark step this week, 42 Colombian asylum seekers became the first ever indigenous people to be recognised as refugees in Panama. The 42 belong to the Wounaan indigenous group who fled Colombia in May after receiving death threats from an armed group. They were admitted to Panama as asylum seekers and have now been granted full refugee status by the National Eligibility Commission.

The majority of Colombians fleeing to Panama cross the border in the Darién jungle, a rainforest that spreads across the two countries. A significant percentage of those fleeing are indigenous groups which are increasingly becoming victims of Colombia's armed conflict. In the past, the government of Panama has only provided temporary humanitarian protection to Colombians arriving in the region in search of safety.

While temporary protection has provided a shelter from violence for some 900 Colombians, it also limits their rights and long-term prospects they do not, for example, have the right to work and their freedom of movement is limited. UNHCR has been urging the government of Panama for a review of the current legal framework, including a change of the temporary protection regime.

This week's decision is an important step in the right direction for some of the most vulnerable refugees in Panama, who can now look forward to a more secure future. Panama which is about to take its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council is also demonstrating its commitment to international refugee law while maintaining its national security.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Colombia to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, while within Colombia itself some three million people have been forced to displace because of the armed conflict these numbers make Colombia the worst humanitarian tragedy in the western hemisphere and the country with the largest population of concern to UNHCR in the world.

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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.

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

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

Colombia: Indigenous People Under ThreatPlay video

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.
Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.