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UNHCR fears for safety of indigenous people in north-east Colombia


UNHCR fears for safety of indigenous people in north-east Colombia

UNHCR concerned at the rise in violence and growing insecurity forcing local indigenous populations to flee a department in north-east Colombia.
27 January 2009
A group of Wayuu people in the arid wastes of La Guajira.

BOGOTA, Colombia, January 27 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Tuesday it was concerned at the rise in violence and growing insecurity forcing local indigenous populations to flee the north-eastern Colombian department of La Guajira.

In one of the latest incidents, a group of Wayúu people sought refuge earlier this month in Venezuela after being attacked on their collective territory in La Guajira. The attack was carried out by armed men who burned down their houses and threatened to kill their leader.

The UNHCR office in Venezuela reports that 86 Wayúu people have arrived in the border state of Zulia in the past two weeks. It is possible that more people have crossed the border in search of protection and not made their presence known, because they fear retaliation by their persecutors.

The newcomers arrived in Venezuela in three small groups after crossing the desert of La Guajira. A small baby fell during the journey and was taken to hospital suffering from a brain injury. The families left all their possessions behind in Colombia.

UNHCR Venezuela is coordinating with local and national authorities to provide food, clothes and hammocks to these families. The newcomers said a larger group of people, also fleeing the attacks, were still inside Colombia and hiding in the desert as they tried to reach safety.

This latest border-crossing takes place within a context of growing violence in the department of La Guajira over the past few months. Human rights monitors warn of a rise in selective murders, death threats, intimidation and extortion, as well as of the increased presence of illegal armed groups in the region.

The violence is putting huge pressure on the Wayúu people and other local indigenous groups - including the Arhuaco, the Kogui and the Wiwa - who together make up 45 percent of the department's total population of around 626,000 people. The Wayúu are one of the largest indigenous groups in the region, with around 150,000 living in Colombia and 160,000 in Venezuela.

In Colombia, the Wayúu people of La Guajira have long been vulnerable to violence and forced displacement linked to the presence of various irregular and illegal armed groups.

In the past few months, Wayúu leaders and social organizations have suffered an increased number of targeted killings, threats and intimidation. UNHCR is calling on the authorities to take adequate protective and preventive measures to protect indigenous people from violence and forced displacement.

There are some 1 million indigenous people in Colombia, divided into 80 different groups. More than 27 of these groups count less than 500 members and are considered at risk of extinction, often as a result of violence and forced displacement.

Indigenous groups tend to suffer disproportionately during forced displacement because of their strong social, cultural and economic links to their lands. Many of these groups live on collective territory, with their own authority and autonomy, as recognized under Colombian Law. They often come under enormous pressure to abandon their lands, which are then used by various groups for economic exploitation, illegal trade or strategic control of territory.

Because of La Guajira's remoteness and strategic location on the Caribbean coast, it has long been a centre for irregular armed groups, as well as criminal groups controlling the illegal drug trade. According to official figures, more than 50,000 people have been forced to flee the region as a result of violence.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Bogota, Colombia