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UNHCR warns of looming humanitarian emergency in Colombia among indigenous communities


UNHCR warns of looming humanitarian emergency in Colombia among indigenous communities

The UN refugee agency is warning of a looming humanitarian emergency among Colombia's indigenous communities who have been fleeing their ancestral homelands in recent weeks after serious threats of violence.
4 April 2006
A UNHCR boat goes up the Atrato River in Chocó to visit indigenous communities trapped by the presence of irregular armed groups on their territories.

GENEVA, Apr 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is warning of an imminent humanitarian emergency in Colombia after two different groups of indigenous people were forced to flee their ancestral homelands in recent weeks.

"Following a series of very serious incidents in recent days, UNHCR wants to warn of a looming humanitarian emergency among Colombia's indigenous communities," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a regular briefing of journalists in Geneva.

Following the murder of two of their leaders last week, in the north-western region of Chocó, more than 1,700 Wounaan indigenous people fled their ancestral homeland. Panic had spread among the Wounaan communities after members of an irregular armed group killed both leaders, who were school teachers, within the space of 24 hours.

On Thursday, armed men had burst into a classroom in Unión Wounaan and left with the school's 37-year-old teacher. The teacher was found dead a few hours later. His body showed signs of torture. The following day, the leader of the Wounaan community was also found dead after being taken away by members of the same irregular armed group. There are fears that more assassinations could follow, as other leaders have received threats.

Already, residents of four river communities have fled, with some 1,100 people arriving in Unión Wounaan, the group's biggest settlement. Along with Unión Wounaan's 640 inhabitants, the displaced Wounaan now want to flee further downriver to the small town of Istmina, but are too scared to do so.

"On Monday evening, a first group of 30 people arrived in Istmina saying those still in Unión Wounaan are afraid of coming under attack while fleeing and do not have enough boats to make the trip downriver which is their only means of transport through the jungle," said Spindler.

"We have repeatedly warned that some of the world's oldest and smallest indigenous groups are at high risk not only of displacement, but even of extinction because of the Colombian conflict. All indigenous communities have close links to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends."

Indigenous associations and local authorities in the area are calling for help from the Colombian government and the international community. The director of UNHCR's bureau for the Americas, who is in Colombia this week, is going to Istmina on Wednesday to meet with the newly displaced and with local authorities.

On the other side of the country in the south-eastern department of Guaviare, 77 Nukak indigenous people arrived last week in the town of San José del Guaviare. The Nukak are an indigenous group of very limited numbers who until 1988 were unknown to the outside world and lived a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering. In recent years, they have become targets for irregular armed groups who have taken over large parts of their territory.

The 77 people who arrived in San José last week had been walking for four months after being forced to leave their ancestral territory. They appeared to be in poor health and obviously malnourished. They are now staying at a farm just outside San José with another group that arrived in November. They are getting emergency assistance from the Colombian authorities. Spindler warned, however, that their long-term future is uncertain. "It is crucial to find a solution that will allow them to resume their way of life and preserve their culture."

This new displacement is the third since 2003 and brings to over 220 the number of Nukaks forcibly displaced. This means that about half of the total Nukak population, which is estimated at around 500 people, has been forced out of its ancestral territory.

"UNHCR is working closely with indigenous associations to help them defend the rights of their people and our focus is very much on preventing forced displacement through documentation, capacity-building and training," Spindler said.

By Marie-Hélène Verney
UNHCR Bogota