In a distant corner of Colombia at the frontier with Brazil, the department of Vaupés is home to 27 indigenous groups, each with a different culture and language. But, affected by conflict and forced migration, many are at risk of extinction.
The Vaupés region is remote, its area includes 50,000 square kilometers of jungle and rivers. Here, there are only 16 kilometers of paved roads surrounding the small city of Mitú, which is connected to the country’s capital, Bogotá, by just two flights per week. The Vaupés River is the only means of transportation to the outside world.
The region is also one of the strongholds of the largest armed irregular groups in the country, which controls the rural areas, while the national armed forces are barely present in the neighboring zones of the city. Many communities along the river live in forced isolation and virtual confinement. Often, the safety situation leaves individuals with no other alternative but to flee.
*”During the last two years, the main cause of forced migration has been forced recruitment of indigenous children by illegal armed groups”*, a Mitú public officer said to UNHCR. In 2008, some 500 families fled from their homes, most of them because their children were about to be recruited by illegal groups.
Children as young as 13 have been recruited, and both boys as well as girls are at risk. The Vaupés Indigenous Regional Council (CRIVA) is especially worried about the recruitment of members of indigenous groups in danger of extinction. One of the most urgent cases is that of the Pizamira. Being in total less than 50, three children were recruited last year.
*”Many of the parents have gone into the Woods to look for their children, but they can’t bring them back”*, a member of the Council told UNHCR.
Some 42 under-age indigenous people were forced to join illegal groups since the beginning of 2008, according to CRIVA. Eleven of them were students at the Bocas de Yi Boarding School, an indigenous community located at a bend of the Vaupés River which is home to children of the whole river basin and gives them the opportunity to study.
The inhabitants of Bocas de Yi live in total isolation, without access to basic services. Some 200 inhabitants share the few existing resources with the 160 children that study in the school. The school has no water, electricity nor bathrooms. Some children sleep in hammocks, others on the floor.
*”Most of the children are here all year because it would be too dangerous to go back and forth from their houses. The conditions here are very, very harsh, year after year”*, according to a teacher. *”These children have no real hope, and that makes them especially vulnerable to other options that unscrupulous people might offer them”*, he said.
Forced recruitment is not always done violently. One of the most common methods is to make the young ones “fall in love”, as the locals say, through indoctrination and the promise of a better life. According to international Law, all recruitment of minors by illegal armed groups is defined as forced recruitment, whether the child believes he should join or not. Rather than taking the risk of losing their children, many families prefer to flee. Nearly 3,000 people, 1% of the population of Vaupés have left their homes.
UNHCR is working with the army in Vaupés as part of a national initiative of training aimed at a better knowledge of the rights of migrants.
*”In Colombia, military staff are often the first or the only presence of the State among communities at risk”*, said Roberto Mignone, joint representative of UNHCR in Colombia. *”The armed forces have a very significant role to play in the protection and prevention of forced migration”*.
Because of their cultural, social and economic bonds with the land, forced migration is especially harmful for the indigenous population and may lead to the disappearance of entire groups. According to the Constitutional Court of Colombia, one third of the 90 different ethnic groups in the country are at risk.
By Marie-Hélène Verney (UNHCR)
*Source:* UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency
*(Translator: Ramiro Pozzo)*