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Some 2,000 indigenous people flee threats and violence in Colombia

News Stories, 17 March 2009

© UNHCR/M.-H.Verney
An Emera girl in an indigenous settlement in Choco.

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 17 (UNHCR) In the latest incident of displacement of Colombia's indigenous people, some 2,000 Embera people have fled their homes in the coastal department of Chocó as a result of threats and conflict between two illegal armed groups.

More than 1,000 Embera have been displaced this month from their collective territories this month in Chocó's Upper Baudó region in north-west Colombia. A census of 897 of them was taken last week in the town of Catrú, while another 114 have sought protection in the town of Nuncido in recent days.

They fled from 15 communities after some 200 members of an illegal armed group entered their territory in the first week of March, threatened the Embera and tried to force them to collaborate in attacks against a rival illegal force.

In the Lower Baudó, nine communities of some 1,000 Embera are now empty due to fighting between the same two illegal armed groups. A total of 86 people arrived in the town of Pizarro, and the situation of the rest of them remains unknown.

In the Middle Baudó, 35 Embera from the community of Indicina on the Ancozó River are now displaced in the town of Puerto Meluk, fleeing from what they say are various illegal armed groups operating in their territory.

There has been a swift humanitarian response from national authorities and international organizations to the displaced in the Upper Baudó, where the Embera in Catrú are receiving food, shelter, basic medical support, water and psycho-social assistance. In the Middle and Lower Baudó, local authorities have provided basic assistance to the displaced and national authorities are starting to assess needs.

UNHCR is concerned, however, about the protection of these communities. There were three mass displacements in the Upper Baudó, two in the Middle Baudó and five in the Lower Baudó last year. There are credible reports of abuses that must be investigated, including the murder of an indigenous woman and the rape of another two in the community of La Vaca in the Lower Baudó.

Indigenous people throughout the region are under constant pressure from illegal armed groups and are facing increasing restrictions on their ability to hunt or fish in their traditional homelands. One of the illegal armed groups in the Upper Baudó imposed an economic blockade along the Catrú and Dubasa Rivers.

At least 27 different indigenous groups are considered to be at risk of extinction in Colombia, largely as a result of armed conflict and forced displacement. Their survival depends greatly on being able to remain on their traditional lands. Unfortunately, many have been driven from those lands and have been dispersed throughout the country, sometimes in distant urban centres.

UNHCR, which has offices throughout Colombia, has various programmes aimed at protecting indigenous people, including regular monitoring and advocacy on behalf of those facing threats and mass displacement; support for indigenous organizations aimed at maintaining unity among displaced communities; rights training; and support to national and local authorities responsible for protecting and assisting indigenous people.

By Gustavo Valdivieso 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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