Reports that displaced youth are abused and exploited in Colombia’s cities concern UN

17 May 2005

The United Nations refugee agency today sounded the alarm on behalf of nearly 400 million displaced teenagers and young people under fire in cities throughout Colombia, where they are increasingly falling prey to gangs or armed militia.

“We are very concerned about reports of violence and intimidation against young internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Colombia’s cities,” Jennifer Pagonis, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in Geneva. She cited information received from agencies working with displaced persons in Colombia who continue to report selective murders, extortion, sexual violence, loan-sharking and forced recruitment into armed groups or prostitution rings.

She said the agency was concerned that, as a result of the violence and intimidation by irregular armed groups in some urban areas, IDPs were becoming displaced for a second and even a third time. There are over 1.5 million registered IDPs in Colombia, although estimates of the total number range between 2 million and 3.5 million. Of the estimated 1 million IDPs living in the largest cities, some 400,000 are teenagers and young people under 29.

“It is very important that we continue to work with the authorities and civil society to ensure that IDPs, particularly young people, receive the protection and assistance they deserve – thus avoiding a situation in which they become easy prey for criminal gangs or irregular armed groups,” said Ms. Pagonis, adding that policies to guarantee their access to school prevent their recruitment by these groups and ensure their physical safety are urgently needed.

According to UNHCR, in some city areas armed groups are known to have imposed curfews and banned behaviour they disapprove of such as body piercing and short dresses in women and long hair in men. People who disobey these orders risk violent death. The latest example of this type of violence was the killing by unknown armed men on 11 May of at least two boys, aged 14 and 16, in Altos de Cazuca, an area in the outskirts of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, which is home to more than 20,000 IDPs.

After that incident, up to seven other young men were reported missing in the same area. According to local witnesses, the reason for these killings and forced disappearances was disobeying the curfew imposed by an irregular armed group operating in the area.

Young IDPs are also exposed to other threats. According to a recent study, only one in eight IDP student have returned to school after having been displaced. IDP girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and teenage pregnancy than other teenagers. UNHCR says that 30 per cent of IDP women under 20 have at least one child, compared to 19 per cent among non-internally displaced women.