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

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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.

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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.

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