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Micro-credit scheme helps Colombian refugees rebuild lives in Venezuela

News Stories, 3 January 2007

© UNHCR
Colombian refugees in the border areas of Venezuela trying to earn their own living are benefiting from UN refugee agency small loans designed to kick-start their businesses.

GUASDUALITO, Venezuela, 3 January (UNHCR) When Andres fled to Venezuela last year from Colombia, one of the first things he did was to call the local police to ask if he was entitled to look for work. The response was encouraging. He was told many Colombians like him lived and worked in the area. The police also gave him the phone number of UNHCR's office in Guasdualito.

In his native Arauca, Andres led an association of local farmers, or campesinos as they are known in Colombia. Forced to flee after years of intimidation escalated into death threats, Andres decided to switch jobs completely when he arrived in Apure State, western Venezuela. With a knack for mechanics and a reputation for being able to fix any old trucks or tractors, he opened a small car-repair workshop.

"For a campesino to lose his identity as a farmer is a terrible thing," Andres said. "But when I arrived here I did not want to do anything that reminded me of our life back home. That's what this war did to us. It took away not just our land but also our sense of who we are."

But, Andres is determined to forge ahead. Under a programme financed by UNHCR, he is applying for a micro-credit to kick-start his business. The sum involved is a small one less than US$200 but it will allow him to buy some tools and even print leaflets to advertise his workshop. He intends to repay the money very quickly in order to apply for a larger loan.

"Micro-credits are not only about income generation," says José Sieber, UNHCR's office head in Guasdualito. "They also serve to rebuild the self-confidence of people who have lost everything. The vast majority of people who get a loan repay it, not just on time but even before schedule. The money goes back into the programme with the idea that little by little we will have more money to loan out."

The micro-credit programme in Venezuela started in late 2005 in all three border states where UNHCR has a field presence Apure to the south, Táchira and Zulia. The programme is administered by FINAMPYME, a Venezuelan cooperative specialising in small businesses and micro-credit. There are similar programmes in neighbouring Colombia, as well as in Ecuador and Panama. In each country, priority is given to the border regions, which are often economically deprived and receive the highest number of refugees and displaced people.

The purpose of the loans varies from buying a sewing machine, to setting up a small shop or buying seeds and tools for a farm. All proposals are considered as long as they are sustainable and applicants demonstrate personal commitment and the necessary skills. Last year, some 300 people benefited from the programme in Venezuela, a modest beginning on which UNHCR hopes to build further in the coming years. More than half of the loans go to women.

Andres' workshop is already doing good business. Even the local military bring their trucks to get fixed. He has so much work that he is now looking for an assistant. He feels he ought to give the job to a newly arrived fellow Colombian. News from Andres' home region of Arauca has been bad lately fighting between two irregular armed groups and many young men fearing forcible recruitment area crossing the border into Venezuela.

Andres has other ambitions besides his car repair workshop. His love for the land did not lay dormant for long and he now dreams of setting up a farming cooperative for Colombian refugees in the area.

"We could grow food to help the families who arrive here with absolutely nothing," he said. "One thing I have learnt from this experience is that without each other we are nothing, so we have to help each other out."

Andres knows that micro-credit loans are too small to buy the land he needs to make his dream come true. Instead, he wants to negotiate with the local authorities for the use of vacant public land an initiative that has the full support of UNHCR.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Guasdualito, Venezuela

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UNHCR country pages

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Among Colombia's many indigenous groups threatened with extinction, few are in a riskier situation than the Tule. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia.

One group of 500 live in Choco's Unguia municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is rich in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

Many tribe members have sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Choco. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands and gave up their traditional way of life.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns, and the refugee agency has helped draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently.

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

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