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Venezuelan border town kicks off refugee awareness campaign

Venezuelan border town kicks off refugee awareness campaign

Displaced Colombians in Ureña recently joined their Venezuelan hosts in a football tournament to kick off a campaign to inform potential asylum seekers of their rights and obligations.
7 January 2004
Colombian and Venezuelan football players in Ureña, an underdeveloped Venezuelan border town where many displaced Colombians live.

UREÑA, Venezuela (UNHCR) - "I cleared this field by hand," said Antonio, a 15-year-old Colombian boy, pointing to the clear stretch of dirt on which a football tournament was to take place. "The community donated the land to us and we worked every day until it was ready for us to play," he added as his team members warmed up before the game.

As the day went on, more and more community members, many of them victims of the Colombian conflict, made their way to the field to support one of the four teams competing in the Quadrangular Football Championship organised by UNHCR and its implementing partner, Caritas, as the kick-off event for the Registration Awareness Campaign in the refugee-hosting community of Ureña, Venezuela, in early December.

"This is a beautiful thing that you are doing," said the mother of one player. "It's something that unites the people, it's important for the children and for the community," she added as her son proudly received his medal for best goalie. In addition to the medals, UNHCR recognised the collaboration and sportsmanship of the players by providing uniforms, refreshments and food baskets to each team member.

One of the main goals of the tournament is to build solidarity and trust between the UN refugee agency and potential asylum seekers who are often unaware of their right to apply for refugee status. This is particularly important in light of the Refugee Registration Project that UNHCR is currently undertaking with the aim of documenting all new and old asylum cases in the Venezuelan border area.

As a small refugee-hosting community near the Venezuelan-Colombian border in the state of Táchira, Ureña is home to approximately 4,500 Colombians, many of whom have been directly affected by the armed conflict in their home country. Lacking formal refugee status, the majority of them are perceived as illegal migrants. Their uncertain situation not only makes them vulnerable to deportation, it also leaves them without access to basic rights such as education, health and justice.

"There is no electricity in Ureña and no sewage treatment service precisely because its inhabitants are perceived as illegal residents," said local community leader Alirio Valera.

The invisibility of Colombians forced to cross into Venezuela in order to escape fighting in their home country is a concern for UNHCR. Currently, there are over 2,000 formal asylum claims registered in Venezuela. However, as noted by UNHCR Regional Representative Maria Virginia Trimarco, "the potential number of asylum claims is actually much greater."

The recent establishment of the National Refugee Commission provides a new opportunity for UNHCR to help displaced Colombians in obtaining formal refugee status in Venezuela. In order to be successful, potential asylum seekers must first be willing to approach and register their cases with UNHCR before they are submitted for processing and evaluation by the Commission.

This year, UNHCR and its implementing partners, Caritas and the Jesuit Refugee Service, intend to expand the Registration Awareness Campaign by organising tournaments, concerts and fairs in refugee-hosting communities in the neighbouring border states of Zulia and Apure. Information outlining the new asylum application process as well as refugee rights and obligations are also being produced and will be distributed to potential asylum seekers at these events.

As with this tournament, UNHCR plans to promote local participation and solidarity by involving both Venezuelan and Colombian community leaders and residents in organising the events. In Ureña, the collaboration of Caritas, community members, team representatives and local leaders was imperative to the overall success of the Football Championship.

"It's so good that you have come here," said Anna, a spectator who had brought her family to support the tournament. "It was worth all the work and we hope you keep visiting."

By Margaret Buhajczyk
UNHCR Regional Office in Venezuela