UN refugee agency ‘deeply concerned’ for indigenous community in Colombia

20 July 2004

The United Nations refugee agency today voiced “deep concern” for the safety of more than 1,200 indigenous people in northwest Colombia who have returned to the homes they fled in March because of fighting, calling on the government to protect them from irregular armed groups that still remain in the area.

Although expressing fear about security at home, the Embera people said lack of their traditional foodstuffs and inadequate health services in the receiving communities compelled them to go back – despite the fact that authorities provided basic emergency assistance. They are among millions of people who have been displaced over the past 15 years by Colombia’s long-running civil war.

“Precarious security conditions in the region of return are cause for deep concern because the irregular armed groups whose clashes caused the Embera to flee in the first place remain in the area,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.

“UNHCR has urged the Colombian authorities to give the utmost attention to the security of these Embera communities and has asked them to ensure the provision of promised aid, including building materials, seeds and boat repairs,” she added.

UNHCR staff continues to monitor these groups, travelling to villages by boat on the Atrato River, she said.

The agency has recently expressed serious concern over the impact of the war on indigenous communities. Thousands of indigenous people have been displaced and some of their leaders have been murdered or have disappeared. Earlier this month, UNHCR began a social project with local spiritual leaders to try to halt a spate of suicides among the young who were losing the will to live because of the war.

Indigenous organizations say all of Colombia’s more than 80 indigenous groups are now at risk because of the conflict. Elders are particularly concerned that indigenous youth are vulnerable to recruitment by the country’s irregular armed groups.

 

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