Venezuelan micro-credit programme for refugees to be expanded

Briefing Notes, 17 April 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 April 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The Venezuelan government is planning to expand a programme of micro financial assistance to Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in Venezuelan border states.

A successful first stage of this programme granted US $250,000 in micro-credits to 65 projects involving production, trade and services. In this first stage, the Venezuelan Banco del Pueblo Soberano one of the government's largest micro-finance institutions supported projects that benefited 121 families, mostly headed by women, refugees and Venezuelans living in areas bordering Colombia.

After registering a high level of return and a bad debt rate lower than 3 percent, the Banco del Pueblo Soberano plans in 2009 to double the aid to other communities of Zulia, Táchira and Apure, and to extend the programme to more border states.

This plan promotes self-employment in host communities and is a big step in the effort to protect and integrate some 12,000 asylum seekers who are waiting for status recognition. In Venezuela it can take up to three years for asylum seekers to be recognized as refugees and to receive documentation giving them access to work.

The programme is part of a "borders of solidarity" strategy UNHCR implements in countries where integration is the most suitable solution. This is the case in Venezuela, where some 200,000 Colombians have arrived in the last decade fleeing conflict in their country. Most of those in need of protection do not have identity cards, which limits their access to the labour market, funding sources and ownership possibilities.

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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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