Dead end for displaced refugee youth in shanty on the edge of Bogotá

News Stories, 30 August 2010

© UNHCR/P.Smith
A group of boys play football in Soacha. Young displaced people living in the suburb face a tough future.

SOACHA, Colombia, August 30 (UNHCR) Over the years, the suburb of Soacha has crept haphazardly and unregulated up the hills south of Bogotá as thousands of families flocked to the Colombian capital to escape violence in rural areas.

They feel relatively safe in the warren of crude brick and corrugated iron homes and shops that make Soacha's Altos de Cazuca neighbourhood seem like a giant human anthill. But for many of their children, the sprawling urban zone of more than 450,000 people, including almost 32,000 registered internally displaced people, or IDPs, is a cultural, social, educational and careers dead end.

While their parents might dream of returning to farms or villages, the young have caught the city bug. "When we speak to the families, the adults say they want to return to their home regions, but the young want to stay here or in Bogotá," said a UNHCR staffer who works in Soacha.

For various reasons, especially discrimination and stigmatization as well as poverty, the shanty town offers them little future. Indeed, the only way out for some is to join criminal or irregular armed groups that, aid workers and locals say, still hold sway over parts of Soacha especially at night.

UNHCR, which began working in Soacha in 2005, believes the young need help and direction. "These young people have no prospects for the future because the efforts at the local level so far have been insufficient," noted Terry Morel, UNHCR's representative in Colombia, adding: "We worked on finding solutions which allow people to construct a future,"

The refugee agency coordinates humanitarian action and supports organizations such as La Casa de los Derechos (House of Rights) and Learning Circles, which work to protect displaced families and their young by easing access to education, health care and shelter, all of which they are entitled to.

Juan, who was playing drums at a youth centre when UNHCR caught up with him, gave some insight into the hurdles that the displaced youth of Soacha face. The 17-year-old fled to Altos de Cazuca a year ago from the northern city of Cucuta after his mother got into trouble. "My mother said I had to leave, otherwise I would be killed because of what she had done," he said, without elaborating.

Juan was lucky. He made a friend on arrival in Soacha who lent him money and he found a job selling cheap jewellery. But like so many other new arrivals, he encountered hostility from the locals. "They don't welcome displaced people. When you walk along the street, they look at you in a bad way and they talk to you in a bad way. When you go and ask for a job, the first thing they ask you is if you are displaced," he explained. "The young people here don't have that many opportunities for jobs," the UNHCR staff member in Soacha confirmed.

Juan was also unable to pursue his goal of studying because, like many displaced people, he lacked money. But others have been barred from local schools on discriminatory grounds. UNHCR staff say discrimination and stigmatization of displaced people are worrying developments.

The young face other serious obstacles to their personal development and improvement. Perhaps the most insidious is the influence that irregular armed groups exert in the shanties of Soacha, so close to the centre of Bogotá.

Forced recruitment is a danger, but the offer of money is also a lure to young people with nothing else. The social policies of these groups also affect the young. "You will have threats against people who are taking drugs, who are sex workers, who maybe have HIV. They will be threatened and maybe even eliminated," Morel noted.

Such social control, including bans on certain types of music or dress and even dreadlocks, "sometimes leads to secondary displacement within Soacha," says an official of the House of Rights, which in 2008 launched a campaign with UNHCR to inform young people about what they could do if menaced by forced recruitment.

The official from the House of Rights, which promotes an institutional presence in Soacha, offers legal advice and stands up for the displaced, also said sexual and domestic violence against children, as well as parental neglect, were problems.

But while the outlook for young people in Soacha is grim, there are rays of hope. The very presence of UNHCR in an area where 500 homicides were recorded in the early 2000s is a step forward. "UNHCR went in there and we opened up a House of Rights and we support the presence of the institutions," Morel said, adding: "This is critical, because it means people don't feel abandoned."

And the young themselves are showing signs of independence and initiative. "The youth centre was created by young people," the House of Rights official revealed, while adding that some of them had taken part in workshops to study public policies and have a greater say in their future. And Juan certainly has a positive attitude. "I'm optimistic. The band is starting to plan for the future and I have a job."

By Leo Dobbs in Soacha, Colombia




UNHCR country pages


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Internally Displaced People

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

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Related Internet Links

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

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Nigeria: Back to schoolPlay video

Nigeria: Back to school

When gun-toting Boko Haram insurgents attacked villages in north-eastern Nigeria, thousands of children fled to safety. They now have years of lessons to catch up on as they return to schools, some of which now double as camps for internally displaced people or remain scarred by bullets.
Lebanon - Homeschooling in a tentPlay video

Lebanon - Homeschooling in a tent

With 400,000 school-age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, only around half can find space in classrooms. Seeking to step into the gap and provide children with an education, Syrian refugee and former teacher Fatima has transformed her tent into a school​
Slovenia: Refugees sleep out in the coldPlay video

Slovenia: Refugees sleep out in the cold

Thousands of refugees, many parents with children fleeing fighting in Syria, spent a night sleeping out in the open between a cornfield and a railroad track just inside Slovenia's border with Croatia. Many more are expected to follow in their tracks as winter approaches.