Colombia: growing UN concern as more indigenous flee violence

Displaced Colombians light lanterns to show solidarity with those forced to flee their homes

27 January 2009 – The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is calling on Colombian authorities to take necessary measure to protect indigenous people from violence and displacement, as more of them flee growing insecurity in the country’s northeast.

In one of the latest incidents this month, a group of Wayuu indigenous people fled across the border to take refuge in Venezuela after being attacked on their territory in the department of La Guajira. The attack was carried out by armed men who burned down their houses and threatened to kill their leader.

UNHCR Venezuela reports that 86 Wayuu people have arrived in the border state of Zulia in the past two weeks fleeing from violence inside Colombia.

“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,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told a news conference in Geneva.

“The newcomers also say a larger group of people, also fleeing the attacks, are still inside Colombia and hiding in the desert in an attempt to find safety,” he added.

UNHCR Venezuela is coordinating with local and national authorities to provide food, clothes and hammocks to the refugees.

Human rights monitors have document growing violence in the department of La Guajira over the past few months, warning of a rise in selective murders, death threats, intimidation and extortion, as well as of the increased presence of re-organized illegal armed groups in the region.

UNHCR said the violence is putting huge pressure on the Wayuu people and other local indigenous groups – including the Wayu, the Arhuaco, the Kogui and the Wiva – who together make up 45 per cent of the department's population (around 626,000 people live in La Guajira). The Wayuu are one of the largest indigenous groups in the region, with around 150,000 Wayuu on the Colombian side and 160,000 in Venezuela.

UNHCR has 12 offices in Colombia, where it works to support the State's efforts to assist a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and four offices in Venezuela to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them unregistered, from Colombia.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

New UN human rights chief in Colombia as indigenous flee violence

Related Stories