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A 'House of Rights' for Colombia's displaced people

News Stories, 30 September 2005

© UNHCR/A.M Rodriguez
Some 20,000 displaced Colombians live in very difficult conditions in Altos de Cazucá, a desperately poor neighbourhood around 10km from downtown Bogota.

BOGOTA, Colombia, September 30 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and Colombia's National Ombudsman's Office on Thursday inaugurated a Casa de los Derechos or 'House of Rights' for thousands of displaced people in Altos de Cazucá, a troubled neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital Bogota.

The House will serve as a centre where internally displaced people (IDPs) can come to reclaim their rights be they human rights, civil rights or such basic rights as health, education, access to jobs and housing among others.

Some 20,000 displaced Colombians make up around 40 percent of the population of Altos de Cazucá, a neighbourhood just 10 kilometres from downtown Bogota. Most came to the area to escape the violence wrought upon their home towns and villages by the armed conflict between illegal armed groups and the national army.

Living conditions in Altos de Cazucá are extremely poor. Makeshift housing, high unemployment, and poverty are the norm. To make matters worse, the displaced people find themselves once again confronted by members of the same armed groups they had tried to escape in the first place. There have been numerous reports of youngsters being murdered in Altos de Cazucá by such groups. Displaced people are often forced to move a second or third time for this reason.

Unfortunately, the same is true in 16 other Colombian cities where, according to Government statistics, more than 1 million internally displaced people are trying to find security, access to public services and jobs. Unemployment and malnutrition are higher among displaced people than among the rest of the population (43% percent of displaced people are ranked at the lowest level of food consumption, and over 50% of heads of households say they are unemployed).

Social studies show that displaced girls in urban areas face a higher risk of sexual exploitation and teenage pregnancy than other teenagers (30 per cent of internally displaced women under 20 have at least one child, compared to 19 percent of other women).

UNHCR redoubled its work with municipal authorities in Colombia's larger cities last year when it became apparent that huge numbers of displaced people were not receiving sufficient attention from the state, and were therefore unable to achieve economic and social stability in some cases, even many years after they were initially displaced.

The 'House of Rights' in Altos de Cazucá is part of this drive to help meet the rights and needs of displaced people. Officials from the Ombudsman's Office, the Institute of Family Welfare, the Presidential Programme of Human Rights and the local government will try to sort out the problems of displaced people coming to the House of Rights. Job training will also be provided.

"Of course, the House of Rights will not solve everyone's problems," said Roberto Meier, the UNHCR Representative in Colombia. "However, it should be able to solve some of the problems faced by some of the displaced people in this desperately poor and ill-equipped area on the edge of Bogota and that already is a big improvement on what we had before. This is a sign to people that they are not forgotten or ignored. Believe me, symbolically, psychologically, that is very important. But there are practical benefits as well."

© UNHCR/M.Rodriguez
The 'House of Rights,' which opened its doors this week, will provide valuable advice as well as practical benefits for thousands of disadvantaged displaced people.

UNHCR hopes that similar centres will soon be opened by the Colombian authorities in other cities with the support of the international community.

The Colombian Government has registered 1.6 million IDPs over the last 10 years although the real figure is thought to be above 2 million. Some non-governmental organizations believe as many as 3.5 million people have been displaced since the mid-1980s.

By Gustavo Valdivieso and Marie-Hélène Verney in Bogota, 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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