UNHCR reaches 200 indigenous Colombians displaced by violence

News Stories, 13 February 2009

© UNHCR/G.Valdivieso
A group of displaced Awá people in Nariño department.

BOGOTA, Colombia, February 13 (UNHCR) UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have reached some 200 indigenous people who are sheltering in remote villages in south-west Colombia's Nariño region after fleeing violence on their collective territory.

On Tuesday, UNHCR called for a full investigation into the reported killings of 17 Awá indigenous people in Telembi Tortugaña, located in one of the most isolated and conflict-ridden parts of the country. Two humanitarian teams, including UNHCR, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, arrived on Thursday in the villages of Samaniego and Buenavista, where around 200 Awá people have managed to take refuge.

The 114 Awá people who reached Buenavista are in very poor health after making the long and hazardous journey from their territory many of the children show signs of chronic malnutrition. Another threat is the presence of anti-personnel land mines, while there is very limited infrastructure in the village to support the new arrivals.

Officials from the state body responsible for helping displaced people have arrived in the area and will start coordinating delivery of humanitarian supplies. Humanitarian assistance is in place in Samaniego, where 68 Awá had arrived by Thursday afternoon.

The Awá authorities have requested that all the displaced be moved out of the area as soon as possible and taken to a safer location further south, where the local Awá community is organizing itself to receive them.

Despite the efforts of the authorities to reach the site of the reported massacre, so far no civilian state institutions have managed to enter the area, and the bodies of the 17 presumed dead have not been found. On Wednesday, there were local reports that up to 13 more people had been killed on another collective territory known as El Sandal.

UNHCR on Friday reiterated its Tuesday call for a full judicial investigation into the reported murders. "It again asks all parties to respect international humanitarian law and urges the Colombian government to fulfil its obligations to protect civilians," a spokeswoman said.

Located on the Pacific Coast along the border with Ecuador, the department of Nariño is one of the regions of Colombia most affected by the civil conflict. For the past two years, it has had the highest rate of forced displacement in the country. The Awá, with 21,000 people, are the largest indigenous group in that part of Colombia and are suffering from harassment, threats, murders and forced displacement as a result of the presence of armed groups on their territory.

The UNHCR field office in Nariño has been working closely with the Awá people, who like many Colombian indigenous groups have been struggling for years to keep out of the country's internal conflict.

The Awá are one of 87 indigenous groups in Colombia. More than a third of these groups are at risk of extinction, largely as a result of armed conflict and forced displacement. More than 300,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2007 and preliminary 2008 figures show a similar trend, bringing the total number of registered internally displaced people to more than 2.8 million.

By Marie-Hélène Verney

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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.

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