Top UNHCR official meets displaced indigenous group in Colombia

News Stories, 19 February 2009

© UNHCR/M.H.Verney
Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone meets Afro-Colombian children in Tumaco.

BOGOTA, Colombia, February 19 (UNHCR) UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone met this week with more than 300 displaced indigenous people in south-west Colombia and condemned those behind the violence that forced them to flee their collective land earlier this month.

Johnstone, who met the Awá group during a visit Tuesday to the village of El Diviso in the Nariño region, also praised the Colombian government for the efficient coordination of shelter and food delivery at the site.

"The national authorities' response in bringing assistance to this group is commendable and should be a model in all cases of forced displacement in Colombia," he told officials of Acción Social, the state body responsible for coordinating the national response to forced displacement.

During his visit to El Diviso, Johnstone commiserated with the Awá, who fled to safety after the reported murder by armed groups of 17 of their people on the collective territory of Tortugaña-Telembí, some two days walk away.

"Thank you for coming from so far to see us today, we have felt very alone and want the world to know what is happening to us and our brothers," one Awá leader told the Deputy High Commissioner.

The Tortugaña-Telembí area is remote and hard to access and only two bodies have been recovered to date. UNHCR has called for a full investigation into the killings. Some 500 Awá have since fled Tortugaña-Telembí, with the largest group in El Diviso and the rest in two other villages.

Like other indigenous groups in Colombia, the Awá have been struggling for years to keep out of the conflict and avoid forced displacement, which takes them out of their ancestral lands and threatens their survival as a community.

The Awá are the second largest indigenous group in Nariño, a part of Colombia that suffers from high indices of violence and forced displacement. Nariño's Afro-Colombians have also suffered badly and Johnstone visited one of their communities in the port city of Tumaco, where UNHCR and the local authorities have been working together to bring basic services to the displaced.

Johnstone also met with senior government officials during his three-day visit, including Vice President Francisco Santos and Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez. During the meetings, Johnstone praised the government's efforts to address the humanitarian crisis and pledged UNHCR's continuing support.

He stressed the need to focus on prevention and address the root causes of forced displacement. "It is more efficient to address the core issue rather than just treat the symptoms," the Deputy High Commissioner said.

He also called for more international attention and support for Colombia's situation. Some 3 million people have been displaced inside Colombia as a result of the decades-long conflict involving irregular armed groups and government forces. Johnstone left Bogota on Wednesday for Ecuador, where he will spend two days before flying to Panama, final stop on his regional tour.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Bogota, Colombia

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UNHCR country pages

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: 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

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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