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UNHCR income-generating project gives hope to scores in Colombian town

News Stories, 7 September 2007

© UNHCR/M.Echandi
Rosa shows off some of her creations.

CÚCUTA, Colombia, September 5 (UNHCR) Five years after losing her home and father, Rosa* is rebuilding her life and feeding her family with the help of a sewing machine, some knitting equipment and the UN refugee agency.

The 35-year-old displaced Colombian uses these basic tools, plus skills handed down to her as a girl by her late grandfather, to produce garments, accessories and other creations of cloth and wool. Sales of her output in this city bordering Venezuela provide for Rosa, her husband, two children and mother.

"I make purses, belts, earrings, blouses and even bathing costumes. People buy my clothes and my mother helps me by selling them in Cúcuta," she told recent UNHCR visitors. "I cannot complain, added Rosa, one of 72,000 registered displaced people in northern Colombia's volatile Norte de Santander department.

She credits UNHCR with helping her get back on her feet after the trauma of flight from her home in the lower Catatumbo region, followed by six months as a refugee in the Venezuelan town of Guasdualito. UNHCR has helped scores of people in her settlement with income-generating projects part of a wider initiative to assist Colombia's huge population of displaced people.

"We left our farm because my father was murdered. We were given 12 hours to leave the village," said Rosa. "When we came back from Venezuela we had the chance to stay in this small piece of land. It is now our home."

Norte de Santander is one of the most volatile regions in northern Colombia. It is plagued by fighting between rival irregular armed groups, drug cultivation and general crime. Rosa's father was a farmer and it is not clear why he was killed.

Rosa felt lost in Venezuela. "I was afraid to register because someone could recognize us," she said, reflecting the fears of many Colombian refugees who remain invisible to the authorities, living unprotected and in dire conditions in border zones.

Following a friend's advice, Rosa and her family returned to Colombia and sought refuge in one of the squalid settlements around Cúcuta for displaced people. Many of these sites lack decent housing, drinking water and adequate health and sanitation facilities.

Last year, things started to look up after UNHCR gave Rosa a sewing machine as part of an income generation project launched last year and aimed at the most vulnerable internally displaced people. The initiative has to date benefited 120 displaced people in her settlement.

The programme is also linked to the Mexico Plan of Action, a regional strategy adopted by almost two dozen governments in 2005 and aimed at safeguarding refugees and displaced persons in Latin America.

In Colombia, the plan proposes concrete measures aimed at achieving self-sufficiency and local integration in the cities. It also envisages measures aimed at stimulating social and economic development in border areas to benefit refugees, displaced people and the local population.

Colombia has some 2.2 million people officially registered as internally displaced independent figures put the figure at more than 3 million while there are at least 500,000 Colombian refugees in the region.

Meanwhile, a smiling Rosa is looking to the future with hope. "My husband says we won't leave again, we are settled now," she said, adding: "I have a dream that one day I will open my own store we'll see."

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Mariana Echandi, José Euceda, Francesca Fontanini and Giovanni Monge in Cúcuta, Colombia

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Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

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

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Colombia: Indigenous People Under Threat

Violence in parts of Colombia is threatening the existence of the country's indigenous people. This is the tale of one such group, the Tule.
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Surviving in the City: Bogota, ColombiaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Bogota, Colombia

Conflict has forced more than 3 million Colombians to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country. The majority have migrated to cities seeking anonymity, safety and a way to make a living. But many find urban life traumatizing.