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UNHCR campaign offers new perspective on rights of Colombia's displaced


UNHCR campaign offers new perspective on rights of Colombia's displaced

Providing an insight into the losses sustained by millions of displaced Colombians is at the heart of a new UNHCR campaign.
7 September 2009
Displaced people in the north of Colombia - many families who lived on their own farms have to endure economic hardship after their displacement.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, September 7 (UNHCR) - In a crowded corner of northern Bogotá, a young professional couple walk through a popular square full of street vendors and performers. The man, in a pin-striped suit and sunglasses, holds a large poster that reads: "I lost my laptop at the airport with all the information from the office". Beside him, a woman hands out flyers to confused pedestrians.

"Displaced people are like us except that they have lost everything," they state.

The well-dressed couple are professional actors taking part in a new UNHCR campaign to raise awareness of the losses incurred by Colombia's displaced population. It aims to remind people from more privileged neighourhoods that while the loss of a cell phone or a wallet may be jarring, many of their compatriots are daily suffering far greater losses.

The campaign, which focuses on the loss of land and property among the dispaced, also features radio spots and newspaper advertisements. A hotline provides additional information while allowing callers to record their comments.

The messages are part of a new strategy to create greater empathy with displaced people by establishing a clear link between their problems and the daily concerns of wealthier Colombians, many of whom live in cities and have little information on the conflict that has forced millions to flee their homes.

As of June, more than three million people were on the State Registry for Internally Displaced People in Colombia, a number that continues to grow. They have fled as a result, directly or indirectly, of the conflict. The majority come from the countryside with some 70% having had close ties to the land before their displacement, either as owners, holders or occupiers.

Land registration remains problematic in Colombia, with many farmers lacking formal titles to their land. Through its Land Project supported by the European Union, the World Bank and Swedish Cooperation, UNHCR is working with Colombian authorities to help improve registration as well as legal protection for the displaced against the loss of their land.

The project also aims to address the practice of the "land-grab", one of the leading causes of forced displacement.

"Often people are forced to abandon their land, or sell it very cheaply, because they are coming under pressure and are scared for their lives," explained Roberto Mignone, UNHCR's Deputy Representative in Colombia. "The Land Project provides a mechanism for local authorities to put a legal freeze on the sale of land in high risk areas, which may lower the risk for individual land-owners."

There are no exact figures on how much land Colombians have lost as a result of displacment. Conservative estimates vary between four and six million hectares, an area larger than Switzerland.

For most of the displaced, the loss of land means a loss of income. A nationwide survey conducted by UNHCR in 2008 showed that the majority of respondents viewed displaced persons as poor rather than as land-owners who had suffered a material loss and a violation of their rights to property.

"When people see us on the street, they turn around and tell us they are so sorry for what happened to us," commented one of the actor-campaigners in Bogotá. "My role is to thank them for their concern and explain that in comparison with the supposed loss of my cell phone, the losses suffered by many displaced people is much greater and deserves far more compassion".

One woman was visibly shocked after talking to the actors. "They really are people like you and I," she said. "This has made me see it through their eyes and put myself in their shoes, for once."

The hope is that such moments will improve public awareness of the situation faced by millions of displaced Colombians and greater understanding of how much they have lost.

By Flor Maria Morantes Valencia and Cristina Villarreal Lago
In Bogotá, Colombia