Colombian indigenous leaders flee to Panama after death threats

News Stories, 19 May 2006

© UNHCR/B.Heger
Many indigenous Colombians, displaced from their ancestral lands by violence, have found refuge in the remote, jungle border region of Darien in neighbouring Panama.

DARIÉN REGION, Panama, May 19 (UNHCR) Fearing for their lives, seven leaders of Colombia's Wounaan indigenous group and their families, arrived by boat in Panama this week after fleeing further death threats. Their journey started more than six weeks ago when they first fled their small river settlements in the western Colombian department of Chocó, escaping threats from an irregular armed group.

Their decision to cross the border was not an easy one. Leaving their traditional territories had already caused the indigenous group intense anguish. But, after weeks of fear and worry, the group felt they were not safe in Colombia and had no choice but to flee again. On Tuesday, 47 people boarded three small boats to make the dangerous crossing over the rough sea to Panama's Darién region on the Pacific coast.

Director of UNHCR's Bureau for the Americas, Philippe Lavanchy, on official mission to Panama, was informed by the national body for refugee affairs (ONPAR) of the group's arrival. He immediately went to the Darién where he found the 47 waiting in a small shelter, for news of their fate. Lavanchy held talks with the authorities to ensure that the newcomers would be allowed to stay and seek asylum in Panama. The Ministry of Government and Justice confirmed later that day that, in accordance with international law, the group would be allowed to remain.

"Now we can start breathing in peace again," José*, one of the Wounaan leaders, told Lavanchy. "We have not stopped worrying ever since we left our homes. Now, we still don't know what will happen to us the violence still goes on and we do not know when we will be able to go back to our homes. But, here at least we know our families are safe."

José was one of some 700 Wounaan indigenous people who fled their ancestral territories in early April after members of an irregular armed group killed two of the community's leaders within 48 hours. In a state of panic, the Wounaans fled by river to the small Colombian town of Istmina where Lavanchy, on mission in Colombia at the time, first met them. He negotiated with the local authorities to improve the group's living conditions in Istmina and listened to the concerns of people like José, who had received death threats from the same armed group that had already killed two Wounaan leaders.

In Panama, the newly-arrived families told him of their constant and growing fears for other Wounaan people who, like them, have received direct threats against their lives.

"They told me that they do not know what has happened to the others," Lavanchy said. "They think that some are hiding in the jungle but they do not have any information about them, they do not even know if they are alive or dead. This is really a very distressing case and I am very grateful to the government of Panama for extending a helping hand to this group at a time of such hardship."

Lavanchy later had the opportunity to thank Panama for its hospitality in a meeting with the President, Martin Torrijos Espino, during which he talked about the newly-arrived group and discussed the situation of refugees in Panama in general.

The majority of refugees and people of concern to UNHCR in Panama live either in Panama City or in the Darién region, a vast and inhospitable jungle that forms the border between the two countries. Among those in the Darién are Colombian indigenous people who have been forced by the violence to leave their territories on the other side of the border.

UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of the conflict on Colombia's indigenous communities. Forced displacement is especially hard on indigenous people, whose culture and traditions are closely linked to their ancestral lands. The refugee agency has warned that some of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing as a result of widespread displacement.

In Panama, UNHCR has provided legal assistance and basic humanitarian aid to the newly-arrived Wounaan people. A staff member is staying in the Darién region for emergency assistance and to make sure the group is allowed to remain and receives adequate protection.

* Name changed to protect identity.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Bogota, Colombia