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Colombian makes fountains to integrate in Brazil's Amazon zone

News Stories, 14 December 2007

© UNHCR/L.F.Godinho
Pedro Villanueva works on one of his garden fountains.

MANAUS, Brazil, December 14 (UNHCR) Fifty-six-year-old Pedro Villanueva* has found a new life and a new love for life on the banks of the mighty Amazon. "I am still fighting a daily battle, but this is an easy one," said the Colombian, who fled his country in 2006 after three years of internal displacement.

He has integrated remarkably well in Manaus, capital of northern Brazil's Amazonas state and the largest city on the Amazon River. He started a small business making garden fountains and has received a micro-credit loan of US$750 to expand this enterprise. He plans to supplement his income by becoming a taxi driver.

Villanueva has also enrolled his three children in school with the help of UNHCR and its local partners. "I always say to my kids: now you are Brazilian, even being born in Colombia. Here we have protection." His wife is still in Colombia.

Despite his optimism, Villanueva's past and flight from Colombia still haunts him. "This was like taking out part of my soul. But in Brazil I am finding quietness to carry on. There are lots of things to do," he said.

UNHCR, working with local civil society partners and the government, is trying to help thousands of other Colombian refugees living in urban and rural areas of Brazil's Amazon region, including indigenous people, realize this too and look for the opportunities that will ease their integration.

The refugee agency provides legal and financial assistance as well as Portuguese classes. And on Thursday this week, UNHCR signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) here with the state authorities and the municipality of Manaus aimed at strengthening protection for refugees, promoting their integration and facilitating the provision of public services to those forced to flee their homes because of conflict.

"The agreements will guarantee better assistance and access to public policies for refugees and asylum seekers, including documentation," UNHCR Representative in Brazil Luis Varese said after signing the MOUs. "Any intervention to protect and assist this population in the Amazon region is part of a humanitarian response to the Colombian conflict," he added.

For him, the partnership between UNHCR and governmental offices demonstrates, once more, that "Brazil is committed with the provision of international protection in Latin America".

Villanueva, who fled his native Casanare department near Colombia's border with Venezuela in 2004 and made his way hundreds of kilometres south to the Leticia-Tabatinga border crossing , is now considering the next step in his integration of his family.

He is considering asking for his wife to be allowed to come and join him and the three children in Manaus. That will help ease the emotional link with Colombia and prepare the way for a rosier future.

Today, there are some 3,500 recognized refugees from 69 different countries living in Brazil. The South American nation is also a resettlement country.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Manaus, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

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

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

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