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Colombian indigenous leaders flee to Panama

Colombian indigenous leaders flee to Panama after death threats, UN agency reports

Voicing renewed concern at the impact of Colombia’s four decades of civil conflict on its indigenous communities, with smaller groups threatened with extinction, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reported today that nearly 50 Wounaan people, seven of them leaders, had fled to neighbouring Panama in fear for their lives.

“Their journey started more than six weeks ago when they first fled their small river settlements in the western Colombian department of Choco, escaping threats from an irregular armed group,” UNHCR reported from Panama’s remote Darien region.

Their decision to cross the border was not an easy one. Leaving their traditional territories had already caused the group intense anguish. But, after weeks of fear and worry, they felt they were not safe in Colombia and had no choice but to flee again. On Tuesday, 47 people boarded three small boats to make the dangerous crossing over the rough sea to Panama’s Darien region on the Pacific coast, the Agency said.

The Director of UNHCR’s Bureau for the Americas, Philippe Lavanchy, on official mission to Panama, immediately went to the Darien where he found the 47 waiting in a small shelter, and met with the authorities to ensure that they would be allowed to stay and seek asylum. The Government confirmed that, in accordance with international law, the group would be allowed to remain.

“Now we can start breathing in peace again,” José (not his real name to protect his identity), one of the Wounaan leaders, told Mr. Lavanchy. “We have not stopped worrying ever since we left our homes. Now, we still don’t know what will happen to us - the violence still goes on and we do not know when we will be able to go back to our homes. But, here at least we know our families are safe.”

José was one of some 700 Wounaan who fled their ancestral territories in early April after members of an irregular armed group killed two of the community’s leaders within 48 hours. “They told me that they do not know what has happened to the others,” Mr. Lavanchy said. “They think that some are hiding in the jungle but they do not have any information about them, they do not even know if they are alive or dead.

“This is really a very distressing case and I am very grateful to the government of Panama for extending a helping hand to this group at a time of such hardship,” he added.

UNHCR has voiced mounting concern in recent months over the disproportionate impact on Colombia’s indigenous communities of more than 40 years of fighting between Government forces, leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries that has displaced 2 million people. Forced displacement is especially hard on indigenous people, whose culture and traditions are closely linked to their ancestral lands.

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