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Colombia: Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities at risk

Briefing notes

Colombia: Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities at risk

3 November 2006

Dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are at risk because of an upsurge in violence in north-western Colombia. Hundreds have fled to other parts of Colombia, a few have crossed the border into Panama, and thousands more people are trapped and unable to leave.

Afro-Colombian communities around the Rio Arquía in the Chocó region are caught in the middle of fighting between the country's military and an irregular armed group that has been controlling the area for many years. Nine communities are at risk - a total of 450 families or about 2,500 people. The two remotest settlements are now empty after the population fled the fighting last week and took shelter in a bigger community further upriver. Schools have been closed and there is not enough food for everyone. People fear more combat and want to leave the area altogether but are afraid they will not be allowed to return home if they go now.

To the south, Afro-Colombian communities are fleeing fighting between two irregular armed groups. On Wednesday, some 400 people fled their homes in Pichima to escape the violence. The community has split, with families dispersing to several locations in the region. Local authorities are working to locate them and deliver emergency assistance.

Indigenous communities are also affected. Members of the Embera group are fleeing their river settlements because of a marked deterioration in the humanitarian situation. Their region is controlled by irregular armed groups and in recent months there has been an increase in selective killings, disappearances, threats and food blockades.

Twenty-five communities along the Bojaya River are at risk. Some Embera families have already fled to other parts of Chocó and elsewhere in Colombia, while a small number have reached Panama. Their only means of escape is by small boat across dangerous territory. It is likely more are on the move but many are too scared to approach the authorities.

UNHCR calls on all actors in the armed conflict in Colombia to respect international humanitarian law, the right to freedom of movement and the right of civilians to seek safety both inside and outside their country. As a matter of urgency, we ask local authorities to respond to the needs of those who have already been displaced. We also request the government of Panama to fulfil its obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Chocó is the poorest region in Colombia, with a population largely made up of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Over the past few months we have repeatedly expressed concern over the worsening situation there and its impact on both Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. There are 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia, of which the country's ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number.