Mobile registration unit brings documents to Colombia's conflict zones

News Stories, 28 May 2009

© UNHCR/M.-H. Verney
A UNHCR worker fingerprints a displaced Colombian during the documentation campaign in the Canyon de las Hermosas.

CANYON DE LAS HERMOSAS, Colombia, May 28 (UNHCR) At the age of 75, Delsabé Suso Sanchez got her first identity card last week, thanks to a mobile documentation campaign supported by UNHCR.

Until then, Delsa did not even have a birth certificate. As far as the state was concerned, she had no legal existence. She was born in Canyon de Las Hermosas, a mountainous region of Colombia that has been under guerrilla influence for decades. Because of the conflict, state institutions have not had access to this rural and under-developed region and have been unable to guarantee basic rights and services.

Earlier in May, a mobile unit of the National Registry Office, accompanied by UNHCR, entered the Canyon de Las Hermosas for the first time at the start of a month-long documentation campaign, which is currently continuing.

"Our presence provides a symbol of international neutrality which helps state organisms to reach all citizens, including those who live in the most fought-over areas," explained Jean-Noel Wetterwald, UNHCR's representative in Colombia.

More than 700,000 identity documents have been issued since 2004, when UNHCR began its cooperation with the state registry office's Unit for Attention to Vulnerable Populations. With seven mobile units operating in the most difficult and isolated parts of the country, the unit reaches out to the most vulnerable population groups, including displaced people and those at risk of displacement as well as indigenous communities.

The seven mobile registration units each come equipped with computers, fingerprint materials, cameras and a satellite antenna to connect the unit with the national database in Bogotá. The project is part of a significant national effort to guarantee the constitutional right of each citizen to a legal identity. As well as legal rights and access to basic services, documentation can be a question of life or death in conflict areas.

"If you don't have an ID card, you are a suspect for everybody," one man explained while waiting for his card in the small chapel of La Virginia, where the registration team had set up for the day. He had left his farm at dawn to make the seven-hour walk to the chapel, bringing his five children, his wife and his elderly father. No one in the family had a birth certificate, and he was especially relieved to be able to register his three sons, aged 14, 12 and 10.

"Without documents, they don't even exist legally. They can be taken away and we will never be able to prove they even existed," he said. Forced recruitment is an ever-present fear for families in the region. Many prefer to flee and join the ranks of the country's large internally displaced population than live with the risk of losing their children. In some cases, documentation can bring some measure of protection.

The success of each campaign depends greatly on the cooperation of the local community. The process can be slow and difficult. For the issuance of birth certificates, the law requires the presence of two witnesses who already have an ID card themselves. It is a simple enough requirement, but one that can create problems in communities where so few people are documented.

"Our aim is to bring fast-track documentation to extremely vulnerable populations and we try to be as flexible as the law allows us to be," explained Edisson Stevens Chavarro of the state registry office. "We know that the people we don't register today may not get another chance of documentation for a long time."

At the end of a morning of waiting, 75-year old Delsabe came out of the chapel with her birth certificate, her first ID card and news that she had almost stopped hoping for. The registration team was able to check that her two sons, with whom she has lost all contact, are alive. The two fled the Canyon 18 years ago after receiving death threats. They had not been able to come back or send any news ever since.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Canyon de las Hermosas, Colombia

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

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

Registration

The recording, verifying, and updating of information on people of concern to UNHCR so they can be protected and UNHCR can ultimately find durable solutions.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

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

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

Colombia is the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. More than two million people have been internally displaced during the conflict, including 200,000 persons in 2002 alone. Tens of thousands of other Colombians have sought refuge abroad.

UNHCR provides legal assistance to these internally displaced persons (IDPs), supports their associations and on the national level has helped to strengthen government programmes and relevant legislation. Specialised agency programmes include education, psychological and social rehabilitation projects for children and their families and assistance to women who head households.

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

Jordan: New Refugee Registration Centre OpensPlay video

Jordan: New Refugee Registration Centre Opens

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits a new registration centre in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The centre was opened to accommodate the growing needs of the many Syrian refugees living in Jordan.
Colombia: Indigenous People Under ThreatPlay video

Colombia: Indigenous People Under Threat

Violence in parts of Colombia is threatening the existence of the country's indigenous people. This is the tale of one such group, the Tule.
Colombia: Giving women strengthPlay video

Colombia: Giving women strength

In the volatile southern Colombian region of Putumayo, forced displacement remains a real and daily threat. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable. A project by UNHCR focuses on helping women to adapt and learn about their rights while they are displaced.