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Help for Colombia’s displaced

UNGUIA, Colombia – At more than 3 million people, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced in the world. They are scattered across wide areas of the country, from remote jungle areas accessible only by canoe to sprawling slums on the outskirts of big cities. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is there with them.

The ranks of the internally displaced include several indigenous groups whose ancestral homelands have been caught up in conflict from the outside, threatening at least 30 tribes with extinction.

Few are in a riskier situation than the Tule people. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia. One group of 500 lives in Chocó's Unguía municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is abundant in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

The tranquil life of the Tule was first disrupted in 2000-2001, when the armed groups penetrated their isolated jungle territory of some 2,350 hectares and went on a rampage of murder, sexual abuse, intimidation and harassment. Many tribe members sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Chocó. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands.

"The Tule are an ancient people and their value is that they protect the environment. For this reason, Pab Dummat [the Big Father] gave us this place to maintain and to defend our traditions," says Pastor, the community's chief and spiritual leader.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns and its dozen offices throughout Colombia are working to protect threatened indigenous groups such as the Tule.

In early 2010, renewed violence between rival armed groups in the Unguía area left Tule members traumatized and fearful about the future, particularly the women and children. About half of the community of 500 briefly fled the territory. "I still feel fear for myself, my family and my people. If they don't leave our territory our lives will continue to be in danger," said Pastor's son, Ismael.

Pastor believes that the tribe must stay in or near their ancestral land and has worked with UNHCR to draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently. This strategy includes providing children with access to education while ensuring their safety, and the protection of land rights. UNHCR is also running human rights courses for Colombian officials tasked with assisting the nation’s indigenous peoples.

The mere presence of international humanitarians can help, and UNHCR and other agencies regularly travel long distances -- sometimes by foot and canoe -- to reach isolated indigenous groups. Still, Pastor and his fellow Tule have many worries -- about forced recruitment of their children by armed groups, about loss of their traditional hunting and growing lands, and about the indiscriminate violence brought in by outsiders.

The Tule are not the only indigenous group in Colombia contemplating their future with alarm. Last year, the country's Constitutional Court asked the government to take action to protect the Tule and 33 other tribes regarded as threatened with extinction. It's a task the government and UNHCR take very seriously.

The endangered groups include the Embera people in Chocó, the Eperara-Siapidaara and the Awá in the Pacific coast department of Nariño and the Jiw and the Nukak in the Guaviare and Guayabero basins. Last year, violence led to the displacement of members of the Sicuani people in the Orinoco Basin and the Wounaan in Chocó.

"There are several areas in which progress is needed in order to improve the conditions of the indigenous [people] in Colombia," noted Terry Morel, UNHCR's representative in Colombia. "The first one is to protect their existence," she stressed.

Read the full story of the Tule people
Read more about UNHCR’s work in Colombia
Photo feature on Colombia’s endangered indigenous people

Resettlement: New land, new life

Baltimore's resettlement centre brings together five organizations providing newly arrived
refugees with comprehensive integration assistance. © UNHCR/T.Irwin

BALTIMORE, United States – Over the decades, the majority of the world’s refugees have eventually been able to repatriate to their homelands, often with the help of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. But when refugees are unable to return home to rebuild their lives, say for security or health reasons, two other possibilities are available -- integration into the country of first asylum or resettlement to a third country.

In recent years, UNHCR has increasingly appealed to developed nations to offer more resettlement places to help ease the burden on developing countries that already host four-fifths of the world’s refugees. The agency has also stepped up the number of resettlement cases it proposes to governments -- more than 128,000 individuals in 2009.

Hundreds of thousands of resettled refugees have rebuilt their lives over the decades, at the same time making valuable contributions to their new countries and communities. The United States has traditionally been the largest resettlement destination, with a well-established nationwide support network to help newcomers get a start. In 2009, some 80,000 people resettled to the United States.

Two years after he first arrived, Ahmed al Badri, a former refugee from Iraq, recently returned to say thanks to staff at the Baltimore Resettlement Centre where he got his start. The facility provides assistance to hundreds of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants each year.

Badri arrived in Baltimore with his wife and young son in October 2008 after being referred for resettlement by UNHCR in Amman, Jordan. Like resettled refugees everywhere, he found those first days bewildering. Fortunately, the Baltimore Resettlement Centre was there to help.

Now working as a repairman for a major retailer, and looking after his parents who joined the family last year, he's also training to become a truck driver. "Life in the United States is good, but hard," he said. "You have to work hard to get by. I couldn't have done it on my own."

Baltimore's "one-stop shopping" approach, which brings together five government and non-profit organizations under the same roof, provides refugees with help in finding a job, learning English, receiving vaccinations as well as psycho-social support – all for a single bus fare.

"The resettlement centre makes accessing services easier for new arrivals, but it also allows us to provide those services in a more comprehensive and effective manner," said Robert Dira, executive director with the International Rescue Committee, one of two non-profit agencies working at the centre. "Working side-by-side with other organizations, we can talk to each other and follow up on beneficiaries' progress and more easily address any gaps."

Three years ago, Chandra Bajgai was receiving advice on everything from finding a job to using Baltimore's transit system. Today, the former refugee from Bhutan is working for the newly-formed Association of Bhutanese in America (ABA). From his cubicle at the resettlement centre, Bajgai helps Bhutanese refugees – one of the largest refugee groups arriving in the United States – to surmount the many challenges that come with starting new lives in a new country. The most pressing for most is to learn English.

Bajgai's first job was as a cashier in a parking garage and, though he considered himself able to get by in English, he was stunned to find on his first day at work that he couldn't understand a word his colleagues were saying. "They spoke so fast, it could have been a different language," he recalled. "Now there are more of us here to help new families. It's easier than it was at the beginning."

With the unemployment rate in the United States around 9 per cent, the entry level jobs that were a refugee's traditional path into the workforce are harder to find these days. Nevertheless, employers respect the new arrivals' determination to succeed, although wages are low, often little above minimum wage.

Though they are quicker to adapt to American life than their parents, refugee children face their own challenges. Bullying at school is common as is being pulled out of class to assist a parent who can't speak English. Parents may also not be able to help with homework or engage in their child's school life. A grant from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement allows the centre to run a youth outreach program that works with 150 resettled children every year.

"We need to keep educating the community about the refugees who are coming here," said Robert Dira. "We support the refugees when they arrive, but we also have to inform the people they are going to be living and working alongside who these new residents are, where they've come from and how they got here."

Read more about refugee resettlement