Ecuador: UN seeks aid for Colombian refugees

Colombia is the worst humanitarian disaster in the western hemisphere, and the worst on the planet after Congo and Darfur. But the world is paying very little attention—even as Ecuador is starting to look more and more like the next domino. From the UN News Center, May 5:

The United Nations refugee agency is appealing for just $69,000 by the end of the month — a mere $10 per person — to help 7,200 Colombians who have fled into Ecuador from violence in their homeland.

“We are desperate to provide for the needs of 7,200 refugee women and young girls,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Ecuador said in a statement.

“In order to provide security, to help to settle the refugees, to provide basic healthcare and living necessities, we’ve calculated that a total of $69,000 is needed. That’s just $10 per refugee.”

At the end of last year there was intense fighting in southern Colombia. Violence, kidnapping and forced recruitment of minor children were reported. Consequently, whole families – men, women and children – had no choice but to cross the border into Ecuador in order to escape the fear and the misery, the office added. Many of them even witnessed members of their family being killed.

Two out of three Colombian refugee women in Ecuador are either widowed or single mothers and have no one to help support or protect their children. Life for these women is challenging. They are victims of unfair labour practices and sexual exploitation. Jobs are scarce and refugees have no choice but to accept the least desirable and lowest paying jobs.

For the children, life is equally miserable. “We must help them, to offer them hope,” the office said, citing the case of five-year-old Erika who fled with her mother and older brother on Christmas Day after paramilitary forces came into her house and killed five of her family members including her father. The bullet that killed him passed through Erika’s shoulder.

“The physical and emotional scar of that day will remain with her throughout her lifetime,” it added.

In a related development, the UN issued the latest in a series of warnings today that Colombia’s indigenous communities are threatened with extinction because of the country’s four decades of civil conflict and the violence associated with the cocaine drug trade.

The Nukak Maku‘s population has declined by almost 60 per cent in the last 20 years and today they number less than 500 members, of whom more than half have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

The Nukak, who live in small nomadic groups of six to 30 and speak only their own language, have fallen victim to malaria and flu since their first contact with outsiders in 1988, and now their lands have been occupied by coca growers and parties to the conflict.

“While the Government of Colombia has afforded constitutional recognition to indigenous people and has made progress in indigenous legislation, much more is needed to protect these small groups, who represent part of the unique heritage of humanity and an important reservoir of cultural and environmental knowledge,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said.

Of Colombia’s 91 indigenous groups comprising 785,000 people, or just under 2 per cent of its population, 12 face extinction due to the conflict. Violence against the indigenous people is often related to armed disputes over land desired for illegal coca and poppy growing and control of natural resources.

Just last month, almost 1,800 indigenous people from the Wounaan community fled from their ancestral lands to seek shelter in the town of Istmina in north-west Colombia after the murder of two indigenous leaders. The nearby San Juan region is being disputed by guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and rightist paramilitary groups.

See our last posts on Colombia and Ecuador.

  1. More on the Wounaan
    From IPS, April 7:

    BOGOTA – Wounaan Indians have been fleeing the jungles of the northwestern Colombian province of Choc贸 en masse since Sunday, after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed two indigenous teachers.

    “The FARC announced that they are going to kill six or seven more teachers,” Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told IPS. “Can you believe that? What does an indigenous teacher have to do with the war?”

    In the municipal seat, Istmina, a town of 12,000 in southern Choc贸, the displaced persons already number 1,750, while the entire Wounaan community – one of Colombia’s 90 indigenous groups – is made up of less than 8,000 people.

    According to a communiqu茅 issued by ONIC, 120 of the displaced persons are from the Uni贸n Wanaan village in the neighbouring municipality of Medio San Juan, where the two teachers were killed on Mar. 30 and 31. The rest fled three villages in the municipality of Istmina.

    “We have seen many women with small children. When we arrived, there was no food for these people, and only on Wednesday afternoon did they begin to receive the first support from the municipal government of Medio San Juan,” Philippe Lavanchy, director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Americas bureau, told reporters in Bogot谩.

    Until then, “the indigenous people didn’t have a thing,” he added.

    Lavanchy modified the agenda of a previously scheduled visit to Colombia and began his tour this week in Choc贸. He said he saw the first 83 indigenous people who arrived to Istmina, who were traumatised by the killings of the two teachers.

    The UNHCR official emphasised that the displaced people are now living in a culture that is very different from their own – the people of Istmina are largely of Afro-Colombian descent – and that they have nowhere to stay.

    In a news briefing in Geneva Friday, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said the displaced Wounaan “stressed that it was extremely important that their community not be split up, and asked to be able to remain as a group near the San Juan River. The river, they explained, is an integral part of their culture and key to their survival as a community.”

    Pagonis also said “There are not enough boats and gasoline for them to travel together in one group, and Wounaan leaders say they are very worried for the safety of those families that will be last to leave” Uni贸n Wanaan, where the displaced first gathered before making the eight-hour trip downriver to Istmina.

    “They are also extremely concerned about the community’s long-term prospects, saying that they cannot go back as long as irregular armed groups continue to be present in their territory.”

    She noted that like the Wounaan, many of Colombia’s smallest indigenous groups are at high risk of displacement and even extinction due to the armed conflict. “All indigenous communities have close links to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends,” said Pagonis.

    The ONIC, meanwhile, urged “the national and international community to speak out against the FARC’s actions, in order to guarantee the life and honour of the other teachers under threat and prevent further forced displacement.”

    The indigenous organisation demanded that the leftist guerrilla group, which has been in arms since 1964, “respect indigenous people and our ancestral territory.”

    It also reiterated the indigenous community’s determination “not to be drawn into the armed conflict in Colombia, because we are and will continue to be builders of peace in our territories.”

    In Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict, the government, the rebels and the extreme-right paramilitary groups refuse to allow the civilian population to remain neutral in the war. The FARC threat against the teachers could have arisen from the fact that the Wounaan leaders have repeatedly stressed that they want no part in the war.

    According to a press release issued by the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office Thursday, a purported member of the FARC known as “El Gato” (The Cat) said at a meeting in the town of Uni贸n Choc贸 in mid-March that the insurgent group had a death list containing the names of local leaders who, he said, had collaborated with the army or the paramilitary forces, and had failed to facilitate a census carried out by the FARC.

    “One of the biggest challenges in Colombia is that the civilian population is abused in the way that these two indigenous leaders were. The teachers were probably killed just because they have knowledge, because they are leaders of their community, which means they have to pay a price,” Roberto Meier, the director of the UNHCR office in Colombia, told IPS.

    The UNHCR is the United Nations agency with the strongest presence outside of the Colombian capital, “near the displaced populations, near the problems,” commented Lavanchy.

    Colombia is the country with the third largest population of forcibly displaced persons in the world, after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and according to the UNHCR, it represents the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere, even greater than Haiti’s.

    The government, which uses a registration mechanism that makes the figures available one year out of date, puts the number of displaced people at close to two million. But the non-governmental Advisory Office for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) maintains that the real figure is over three million.

    Lavanchy underlined that what is most important is not the number of displaced people, “but rather how we are going to come up with concrete solutions for these people on the ground,” whether they number 100,000 or four million.

    “There is a difference between what you see here in Bogot谩 and what you see in Choc贸. Here there is a degree of sophistication in the legal and political debate, and when you find a situation like that of Choc贸, the local authorities are not responding the way you would hope,” said Lavanchy.

    At the same time, however, he praised the work of the local officials in Medio San Juan, as well as Catholic Church representatives, who have carried out widely recognised humanitarian efforts in the region.

    While two successive governments have earmarked significant resources to addressing the problems of the displaced, “for me it has been a good example of the difference between theory and practice,” remarked Lavanchy.

    “I think it is crucial that when we talk about humanitarian issues, we must talk much more about practice. We cannot leave the victims like this. We have to act immediately; the response must be immediate,” he declared.

    Although he described the efforts of the national authorities and monitoring bodies as “significant,” he added that more is needed. “A human being is a human being. Nothing else matters.”