UNHCR joins aid effort for victims of devastating floods in Colombia

News Stories, 30 December 2010

© UNHCR Photos
UNHCR staff unload food items for communities affected by severe flooding in the town of Cantagallo in northern Colombia.

BOGOTÁ, December 30 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency is stepping up efforts to provide emergency assistance to thousands of Colombians affected by exceptionally heavy rains that have caused floods, washed out roads and sparked widespread displacement.

President Juan Manuel Santos has called the flooding "the worst natural catastrophe in the history of Colombia". Government estimates put the number of people affected at more than two million and it has predicted that assistance to victims and the cost of rebuilding infrastructure could exceed US$ 5 billion.

Hardest hit has been the north of country where dozens of towns remain under water. Thousands of people are living in shelters, and others have moved to less affected areas.

Responding to the government's appeal for international assistance, the UN refugee agency which runs an operation to assist more than three million people displaced by violence began distributing emergency aid in affected areas two weeks ago. The agency is working with local and regional authorities as well as with the Colombian Red Cross.

"We found people isolated in the hills, in places where the roads have been destroyed, and their children were hungry," says Marlene Mesa, a UNHCR staff member who took part in an aid distribution in the area of Cantagallo, south of the province of Bolivar on the Caribbean Coast.

During his visit to Colombia earlier this month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed his sympathy for those caught up in the flooding. "I would like to express the full solidarity of UNHCR and the UN in Colombia at this moment of intense pain," he said. UNHCR has since committed additional funds to help to over 35,000 people and is signing an agreement with the Colombian Red Cross.

Mattresses, hammocks, mosquito nets, blankets, as well as shelter materials are being delivered to hard hit areas, including the departments of Atlantico, Bolivar, Cordoba and La Guajira in the north; Santander and Norte de Santander in the East; and Antioquia and Choco in the west.

Many of those displaced by the flooding had only recently begun to rebuild their lives after being forced from their homes by the violence of illegal armed groups. Those uprooted by violence in Colombia often end up living in vulnerable areas close to rivers, in unstable terrain, or on hillsides where there is the risk of mudslides. For them, the challenges of again starting their lives once the flood waters recede will be enormous.

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Bogotá

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Emergency Response

UNHCR is committed to increasing its ability to respond to complex emergency situations.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

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

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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