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Refugee and Costa Rican youth use radio to tackle xenophobia in schools

News Stories, 25 January 2010

© UNHCR/A.Vasquez
Some of the Colombian refugees and Costa Rican teenagers in the recording studio.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, January 25 (UNHCR) Sitting in front of a microphone in a Costa Rican recording studio, Annye tells how an irregular armed group in her native Colombia threatened the life of her brother some eight years ago, prompting her family to flee the country.

"If my father did not pay them a specific sum of money, they would kill my brother," said the 16-year-old refugee, who has been taking part in a UNHCR project aimed at spreading awareness about refugees and combatting xenophobia in Costa Rica's high schools.

According to a UNHCR survey conducted two years ago, 40 per cent of young refugees in Costa Rica say they have been the victims of intolerance or insulted by their classmates or teachers.

Under the project, Annye and 13 other teenagers refugees and Costa Ricans recorded a series of radio stories aimed at giving students around the country a greater understanding of what it means for a young person to be forced to flee their home and leave so much behind because of violence or persecution.

"For UNHCR it has become crucial to create a tool to combat xenophobia in schools, to inform children about who the refugees are and why they need our support to integrate into this new community," said Jozef Merkx, UNHCR's representative in Costa Rica.

Having children tell their peers about their suffering, helps make the issue much more personal and real. It can also create sympathy and bonds between young people of different nationalities and backgrounds.

The radio stories, which were developed with help from the Radio Netherlands Training Centre (RNTC) and UNHCR's local partner, ACAI, will form part of an education module being developed to counter xenophobia in schools. "The idea is to distribute the module in April, as a pilot project, to schools in locations with a large migrant and refugee presence," Merkx said. It will then be used in other areas.

The Colombian refugees and local children who took part in the two-day project, held here recently, started off by learning the nuts and bolts of broadcasting. The stories were then recorded.

"We reviewed the basics of how to make radio stories and we also explored the rights of refugees," explained RNTC producer, Arturo Meoño. "With Costa Rican and refugee high school students taking part, we were able to hear two sides of the issue: the perceptions of young refugees on their life in Costa Rica and the reaction of young local people on the life stories, rights and experiences of refugees."

Psychologist Maria Andrea Araya said the approach made for an interesting mix of stories and reactions. "Some concentrate on the flight from violence and the challenges of local integration; others prefer to discuss what young refugees in Costa Rica experience in their daily lives."

Leidy, a 16-year-old refugee, talked excitedly about her love of Latin American music, while Karen, aged 15, complained about how refugees were often stereotyped unfairly. "When somebody gets angry with me, they call me a drug dealer," she noted.

Others mentioned incidents of xenophobia in Costa Rica, while also touching on positive experiences. "When we arrived here we saw that education and health were free," said Alexander, 15, adding that in Colombia, it was more a situation of "don't get sick, because there is no money to pay for the hospital bill."

Costa Rica provides shelter for some 12,000 refugees from about 40 nationalities, though more than 80 percent are Colombian. The country receives approximately 80 asylum seekers per month and also hosts a large migrant population. Since 2009, there have been small migratory movements through Costa Rica of Africans and Asians trying to reach North America.

By Andrea Vasquez in San Jose, Costa Rica

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UNHCR country pages

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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