Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offered the following comments on the situation in Colombia Aug. 8 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. From the UNHCR website:
To mark World Indigenous Day tomorrow, UNHCR in Colombia will call on all armed groups in the country to keep the country’s indigenous population out of the armed conflict and respect the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. UNHCR has repeatedly warned that indigenous groups in Colombia are increasingly at risk of violence and even disappearance as a result of the ongoing conflict. Indigenous groups are increasingly forced to flee their ancestral lands into neighbouring countries to find safety.
In the past few months, thousands of indigenous people have fled their lands to escape violence. In the latest episode, more than 1,700 Awá people last month left their reservations in the department of Nariño in the south near the border of Ecuador, to escape combat between an irregular armed group and the Colombian military. So far, they have been unable to go back to their homes.
In April, more than 1,500 Wounaan indigenous fled their ancestral homelands in the department of Chocó after two of their leaders were murdered by members of an irregular armed group. They took refuge in the small city of Istmina, where several of the children died. Most have now returned to their communities, even though security is still lacking.
Concern is now growing in Chocó over the fate of Embera communities caught up in fighting between irregular armed groups near the border with Panama. They are unable or unwilling to leave their lands for fear they will never be able to return. The Bari communities, near the border with Venezuela, are also choosing to stay on their territories among heavy presence of irregular armed groups and are at high risk of violence.
Indigenous culture is closely linked to the land and often based on belief that the spirits of ancestors and magical beings live in the earth and water of their reservations. Forced displacement leads to the loss of tradition, culture and language – and often to the disintegration of the group’s identity.
One of the most tragic cases is that of the Nukak. Until 1988, the outside world was unaware of the existence of the Nukak – a nomadic indigenous group who lived by hunting and gathering in the vast rainforest that spreads over the department of Guaviare. Since then, irregular armed groups have forced more than half of the group’s estimated 500 members to leave their ancestral land. The most recent incident was in April this year when 77 forcibly displaced Nukaks arrived in the departmental capital.
Colombia’s indigenous peoples are also increasingly forced to cross the country’s borders. Some 50 Wounaan indigenous fled to Panama earlier this year after receiving threats from an irregular armed group. Small groups of Wayu indigenous are trickling into Venezuela. Some 300 Quechua indigenous asked for asylum in Ecuador last November after an irregular armed group entered the San Marcelino indigenous reserve in Colombia, kidnapped six young girls and threatened the population.
Colombia’s one million indigenous people make up less than 3 percent of the country’s population compared to 25 percent in neighbouring Ecuador. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) 23,000 indigenous people were forcibly displaced last year. They have also been the victims of targeted killings, threats and forced recruitment. Almost all of the country’s more than 80 indigenous groups are at risk.
UNHCR works to protect the rights of Colombia’s more than 2.5 million displaced people and of Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries. In Colombia, we are working to strengthen indigenous organizations such as ONIC so that they can better defend the rights of their people. Our projects in indigenous communities include helping people to obtain official identification documents, human rights and capacity-building training, work with indigenous women and also supporting the state in both its emergency and long-term response to the crisis.