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More than 800 Afro-Colombians flee to Colombia's main Pacific port

News Stories, 17 March 2011

© UNHCR/B.Heger
The displaced found shelter in the run-down city of Buenaventura, Colombia's most important Pacific Ocean port.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, March 17 (UNHCR) More than 800 Afro-Colombians have fled their homes along western Colombia's Anchicayá River and sought shelter in the Pacific Ocean port of Buenaventura since the beginning of the month.

The displacements appear to be linked to the growth of illegal mining and the struggle between illegal armed groups to control this activity. The area is rich in valuable mineral resources, including gold.

A UNHCR press release said the security situation in the region had deteriorated on February 28, when a public bus was stopped by an illegal armed group and a man from the village of Agua Clara was shot dead. More people fled when two bodies were seen floating in the Anchicayá River on March 7-8.

As of last Friday, the authorities in Buenaventura had registered the arrival of 789 displaced people from 215 families, including 370 children and 46 older people. However, 62 more families arrived in Buenaventura from the village of Llano Bajo on Monday.

UNHCR plans to visit the area with government officials and NGO representatives in the next few days to gather first-hand information about the population movement.

Meanwhile, UNHCR also reported that a group of 200 members of the Embera indigenous group in Colombia's Choco department (north of Beunaventura) had been forced to flee their homes on the banks of the Pavasa River due to the activities of another illegal armed group.

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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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