Venezuela: UNHCR stepping up activities for Colombian arrivals

Briefing Notes, 29 June 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 29 June 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is stepping up its activities along Venezuela's border with Colombia to meet the needs of a growing number of people arriving in search of a refuge from violence and armed conflict.

As of this month, we will be running projects from two new locations on the Venezuelan side of the border: Amazonas to the south and a region known as "Sur del Lago" further to the north. The majority of new arrivals in the Amazonas belong to indigenous groups and come from the Colombian regions of Meta, Guaviare and Vichada.

UNHCR intervention in the Amazonas and Sur del Lago will focus at first on conflict-prevention, to reduce the risk of tension that large influxes of people can cause. It will begin with training of the armed forces and civilian authorities in refugee law and human rights. Both projects were made possible with the support of the United Kingdom government, which also backs a similar initiative in the tri-nation border area where Peru, Colombia and Ecuador meet.

On the Colombian side of the border with Venezuela, the humanitarian situation remains of serious concern. The region of Catatumbo to the north and Arauca further to the south last year registered some of the highest rates of forced displacement in the whole of Colombia and the worst indices of targeted killings, landmine accidents and armed fighting.

During a fact-finding mission to Arauca earlier this month, UNHCR found evidence that forced displacement continues on a large scale. The number of new cases recorded in the national system for registration of displaced people tripled last year: from 1,000 in the first six months to 3,000 in the second half of 2006. This number does not include displaced people who do not come forward for registration.

Figures for the first six months of 2007 are not yet consolidated, but local authorities say the numbers keep rising. In the town of Tame, the authorities dealt with 2,500 new cases of displacement between January and May of this year, compared with 1,250 in the whole of 2006. The situation is similar in the rest of Arauca, where the country's two guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, have been fighting for territory since March of last year.

The UNHCR team also heard testimonies of threats, targeted killings and widespread intimidation of the civilian population, especially in rural areas. Many mentioned concern that violence and unrest could increase in the run-up to local elections in October.

Some 2 million people are on the national registry for displaced people in Colombia, with official estimates that another million have been victims of forced displacement but are not registered. UNHCR and the Venezuelan government calculate that some 200,000 Colombians may be in need of international protection in Venezuela. UNHCR has three field offices on the Venezuelan side of the border.

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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.