More Colombians fleeing to Venezuela's cities, says UNHCR

News Stories, 30 March 2005

© Cáritas/G.Graterol
A tailoring course for refugee women, part of the income generation programme for urban refugees.

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 30 (UNHCR) Rising numbers of refugees and asylum seekers are moving to urban Venezuela, citing security concerns and economic difficulties in the border region. While isolated border communities continue to be the first destination of people fleeing the Colombian conflict, UNHCR has noticed a considerable increase in the number of individuals who seek protection in bigger cities like Maracaibo and Caracas.

In Caracas, the UN refugee agency registered more than 700 asylum seekers last year, almost double the number registered in 2003. These asylum seekers come from a wide range of countries, including Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but up to 85 percent are victims of the Colombian conflict.

"In the cities, they feel more secure by being unidentified within a larger population," explains UNHCR programme officer Andres Ramirez. "They also believe they can find more economic opportunities to survive there."

The profile of asylum seekers has changed, according to Mayris Balza, a representative of UNHCR's implementing partner, Cáritas de Venezuela. The fact that large urban centres might provide more employment opportunities for trained professionals is also an important factor in their decision. "The first thing they say is 'I want to work', yet these people are not farmers and they have different expectations and needs in terms of lifestyle," says Balza.

"The people we receive in our office normally have high social profiles in Colombia. The majority are professionals, human rights activists, union leaders or lawyers," she notes. "They come to the cities because they no longer feel safe at the border. They fear that irregular armed groups can easily identify and persecute them in these areas and that's why they choose to relocate to urban centres."

Hector Fabio Rojano*, a Colombian asylum seeker, was a truck driver in the village of Codazzi, but had to flee in 2001 to Ureña because of the pressure of many different armed groups. "The persecution that I suffered made me flee across the border, there again I was threatened, probably I was still too close to Colombia, so I decided to come to Caracas," he says.

Refugee Luuisa Patricia Rodriguez* feels that the border communities are not very safe. "I wanted to get away from Colombia as far as possible, but I did not manage, Colombia was still just on the other side of the border," she says. "If they wanted, they could also locate us here. I still felt the fear."

Rodriguez shares her difficulties in finding work, even with the certificates issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "When I look for work, they ask for my cédula [Venezuelan identity card]. I tried to work as a hotel maid, but without legal documents, they would not hire me. My husband does not earn enough money, and we cannot afford to pay for the necessary fees in order to obtain identity cards."

"There is a general belief that work opportunities largely depend on the size of a community the more people live in a certain area, the more opportunities may appear," Ramirez says. Furthermore, "refugees usually think there are more and better facilities in urban areas and it might be easier to advance one's education with the support of existing government social and education programmes." Unfortunately, simply moving to the cities does not protect refugees from problems like discrimination, xenophobia and unemployment that they faced in the rural areas near the border.

"In Venezuela, the Colombians are generally misperceived as criminals, drug traffickers or members of illegal armed groups," says Balza. "Therefore, due to the current economic situation in Venezuela and the lack of official documentation, it is difficult for the refugees to find a house or a job."

Asylum seeker Rojano faced similar problems trying to obtain a Venezuelan driver's license. He could not apply for it without an official identity card.

UNHCR is working with Cáritas de Venezuela to help urban asylum seekers and refugees like Rodriguez and Rojano to escape this vicious cycle and overcome their problems. The agencies offer legal advice on asylum procedures to help them claim their basic rights. They also provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs in the areas of health and emergency shelter. In addition, asylum seekers and refugees benefit from income-generating activities supported by micro-credit programmes, especially in urban areas where job opportunities are scarce. In the past, these types of projects were limited to people living in the border areas.

© UNHCR/G.Guerrero
UNHCR staff visiting urban asylum seekers in Petare, a slum area in Caracas.

"Urban refugees have proved to be very resilient and prefer to work hard to achieve self reliance rather than to become dependent on humanitarian assistance," concludes Ramirez.

* Not their real names

By Grace Guerrero
with inputs from Margaret Buhajczyk
UNHCR Regional Office in Venezuela