Displaced Colombians turn an unwanted corner of a major coastal port into a decent home

Telling the Human Story, 4 January 2010

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
Eliécer Baron, 53, is the leader of 118 families in the Villa Gloria district of the Caribbean port of Cartagena. He and about half of the other families he lives alongside were forcibly displaced from their homes in northern Colombia. He has never felt it safe enough to go back. 'One of my friends returned two years ago,' he says. 'He was killed soon after that.'

CARTAGENA, Colombia, January 4 (UNHCR) The cascading blue waves, powdery white sand and gentle breezes are what draw tourists to Colombia's Caribbean beaches. But see the man renting chairs to the tourists? It was not a tropical idyll that drew him here, but the prospect of safety.

Eliecer Baron's mother was killed 14 years ago in northern Colombia's Uraba region when she stood up to irregular armed groups trying to steal her cattle. "At first I moved to a different region, Sucre, where I could continue living my life as a farmer," the 53-year-old recalls. "Yet two years later, the violence reached Sucre too. That was when I decided to come to Cartagena."

With a new family arriving every week from other violence-prone areas of Colombia, Eliecer and other displaced people found their own stretch of Cartagena beach and created a settlement on the outskirts of the city.

Like so many other displaced people forced off their own land, the only place they could find was one that nobody else wanted: when they arrived, the district had no electricity or other municipal services because the city authorities said it was prone to flooding, and the land ownership was in question. Displaced people like Eliecer even had to buy water in buckets.

That has changed over time and the local government now provides both water and electricity. Eliecer and 118 other displaced families who formed their own organization have also become adept at standing up for their rights, thanks to training UNHCR has provided on the rights of displaced people.

"It happens often that we have to tell the authorities here what the law is ordering them to do regarding displaced people," says one of the members of Eliecer's organization. They also educate displaced families so they can benefit from special state programmes.

The overwhelming majority of the group's members are women. "Eliecer is a gentleman," says member Ana. "He knows how to deal with people, he is respectful, and above all he knows a lot about organizing and about laws and rights."

In addition to his advocacy work, Eliecer struggles, as do many of Colombia's displaced farmers, to support his family in the city. Renting beach chairs brings in a modest income, and his wife hasn't been able to work for four years.

"She was there when my mother was killed and, ever since, she has had high blood pressure," he says. "Somehow it affected the kidneys in the last years, and now she needs dialysis treatment every second day."

These days, there are rumblings that real estate developers may want the once-undesirable terrain that Eliecer and his displaced friends call home. But, after losing his home twice before in his own country, Eliecer is standing firm.

"We were displaced before," he says with determination. "Now we're staying. We have the right to."

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Cartagena, Colombia




UNHCR country pages

Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

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

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.
Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.