Shoes campaign promotes understanding and tolerance in Colombia

News Stories, 13 January 2011

The campaign shoes.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, January 13 (UNHCR) Young Francesca* will never forget the day that she was forced to flee from her home in a rural area of northern Colombia's Antioquia department. There was a beautiful dawn, but the rest of that February day in 2003 was filled with fear and tears.

The security situation in her native Granada municipality had been steadily deteriorating since 1995, with the arrival of illegal armed groups in the area and growing violence and forced displacement. On November 3, 2000, one armed group killed 19 people in and around Granada, including children, and in the following month much of the town was destroyed and 23 people killed in attacks.

Finally, Francesca's family were forced to flee for their lives. "We were given very little time to go," the bright 11-year-old wrote in a letter last November in support of an important new UNHCR awareness campaign. "Seeing the anguish of my parents, I cried with them without really knowing what was going on."

Since 2005, the situation has been relatively stable and the family returned after about a year to their farm to find the house in ruins and the fields overgrown. "All we had was the courage to move forward. So we decided to reopen our land and keep working to recover the life we once had," she recently told UNHCR.

But now Francesca, and other victims of the violence in Granada, are helping UNHCR to spread awareness in Colombia and other Latin American countries about the plight and life of the forcibly displaced including more than 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia and to promote tolerance and understanding.

UNHCR's "Put yourself in their Shoes" multi-media campaign, which coincides with celebrations marking UNHCR's 60th anniversary (December 14, 2010), was launched at an international meeting last November in Brazil on refugee protection and other issues. To support the year-long campaign, people literally slip into a pair of shoes. Several celebrities have already done so.

Francesca got into the spirit of things by handing a pair of her shoes to one of UNHCR's top officials, Völker Turk, when he visited Granada in November. It was an especially meaningful gesture for her because they were the first pair of shoes that she received after fleeing her home all those years ago.

"I made everyone smile with my shoes, because of the funny sound they made," Francesca told UNHCR, adding that "in this way I could, to a certain extent, disperse the pain caused when we left our home."

Today, she occasionally helps the UNHCR office in Medellin, the largest city in Antioquia, meeting visitors to her community like Turk and telling them about the challenges that the people of Granada have faced and about the conditions necessary for people to be able to return home.

"Francesca is a symbol representing all the victims of the conflict in Granada municipality," said Teemar Kidane, who works on protection issues for the UNHCR sub-office in Medellín.

There are currently almost 750,000 internally displaced people in Antioquia department. UNHCR provides technical support to the local authorities and monitors the welfare of displaced people. The refugee agency is also involved in shelter projects for indigenous people in the department who have been displaced.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Catalina Román in Bogotá, 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.

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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