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UN agency urges Government to protect indigenous Colombians forced to flee violence

UN agency urges Government to protect indigenous Colombians forced to flee violence

A group of displaced Awá people in Nariño department, Colombia
The United Nations refugee agency today called on the Colombian Government to fulfil its obligation to protect civilians after some 200 indigenous people, many suffering from very poor health and severe hunger, were forced to flee a massacre on their home territory.

The Awá indigenous people made the long and hazardous journey from Telembi and Tortugaña, in some of the most isolated and conflict-ridden parts of the country, after 17 of their members were killed in the remote south-western Nariño region of Colombia, which has been beset by over four decades of violence between Government forces and various armed groups.

Two UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) teams along with other UN agencies arrived yesterday in the villages of Samaniego and Buenavista where the Awá have taken shelter, in an area littered with landmines and with limited infrastructure.

UNHCR reported that the 114 Awá in Buenavista are in very poor health and many of the children are showing signs or chronic malnutrition.

“The Awá authorities have requested that all the displaced be moved out of the area as soon as possible and taken to a safer location further south, where the local Awá community is organizing itself to receive them,” said UNHCR spokesperson, Ron Redmond.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, Mr. Redmond noted that despite the efforts of the authorities to reach the site of the massacre, so far no civilian state institutions have managed to enter the area, and the bodies of the 17 presumed dead have not been found.

Adding, “On Wednesday, there were local reports that up to 13 more people had been killed on another collective territory known as El Sandal.”

“UNHCR reiterates its call for a full judicial investigation into the reported murders. It again asks all parties to respect international humanitarian law and urges the Colombian government to fulfil its obligations to protect civilians,” he said.

More than 300,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2007 and preliminary figures for 2008 show a similar trend, bringing the total number of registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) to almost 3 million.

The 21,000-strong Awá are one of 87 indigenous groups in the country and the largest in Nariño, which has had the highest rate of forced displacements in Colombia for the past two years. The Awá are the largest indigenous group in that part of Colombia, suffering from harassment, threats, murders and forced displacement at the hands of armed groups.

More than a third of Colombia’s indigenous groups are at risk of extinction, largely as a result of armed conflict in the country and forced displacement.