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