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Colombians light up to show solidarity for displaced people

News Stories, 12 December 2008

© UNHCR/S.Abondano
Lifted by Light: Lanterns made by displaced Colombians were lit to show solidarity with those forced to flee their homes.

BOGOTA, Colombia, December 12 (UNHCR) Thousands of Colombians braved a chilly evening this week to create a river of light in a central Bogota square in memory of the country's hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and other victims of years of conflict.

The lantern lighting on Wednesday marked the culmination of the UNHCR-led Corre por la Vida (Running for Life) campaign, which was launched four months ago on the internet to raise understanding about the displaced and foster solidarity and support for them. Some 10,000 people visited the special website www.correporlavida.com which encouraged volunteer work and the involvement of the private sector in providing durable solutions.

An average of 25,000 people are forced to flee their homes every month in Colombia as a result of armed conflict, threats, intimidations, killings and generalized violence. There are currently up to 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs) throughout the country.

Several of the displaced took part in the ceremony on Tuesday, which also happened to be the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They included Claudia, a displaced woman in her forties who lit one of the 5,000 paper lanterns to put a symbolic end to Colombia's "horrible night"

She was among a group of 150 IDP women now living in a suburb of Bogota who made the lanterns, which were distributed among the milling crowds in the square. "It is the first time that I have felt that an event like this is meant for me," she said at a ceremony attended by Bogota's Mayor Samuel Moreno and other dignitaries, including visually impaired athlete, Elkin Serna.

Serna, who won a silver medal in the marathon event at the Beijing Paralympics earlier this year, led a three-kilometre march to the city centre to show solidarity with the displaced. Staff from UNHCR and 11 other organizations backing the Corre por la Vida campaign joined in the march.

The campaign had special meaning for Serna, who was forced to flee the family farm when he was only 11 years old after an irregular armed groups issued death threats against his father, mother and uncle. A year later he was forced on the run again and soon afterwards his sight began deteriorating as a result of a virus, which might have been cured with proper health care.

"As a displaced person with a disability, I have a lot going against me," he said, while adding that he was "proof that difficulties can be overcome and I am here to help other people do it."

Colombian rock musician Juanes, another supporter of the campaign, sent a message of solidarity with displaced people "What we cannot do is to do nothing," he said in a video message broadcast during the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the head of UNHCR's operations in Colombia deemed Corre por la Vida a success. "The campaign has had a positive impact in the lives of displaced people. We know of displaced people who are running small businesses and are now employing other displaced people as a result of the campaign," said Jean-Noël Wetterwald.

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Bogota, Colombia




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Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

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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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