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The Plight of Displaced People in Columbia

The UNHCR’s regional public information officer has recently interviewed the director and stars of a new film in Columbia, called ‘Portraits in a Sea of Lies’. The film tackles the issue of displaced people within the country, by depicting a child who is forced to move from a rural area to Bogota and who returns fifteen years later to her former village. The director of the film, Carlos Gaviria, was eager to present the huge tragedy this represents for many poor Columbians, who struggle to build a new life in the towns and cities.

Over the last 30 years, armed groups are believed to have taken 4 to 6 million hectares of land from villagers and some estimates put the number of displaced people in Columbia as high as 10 per cent of the population. Though formerly engaged in military struggles, the paramilitary groups were demobilised six years ago. But since then, many fighting groups have transformed into criminal gangs. They use stolen land for drug-smuggling or to make money from oil palm farms, logging or mining activities. Once villagers have been frightened away or forced to sell their farms for prices well below the market value, corrupt officials produce false deeds and titles for the land.

Some organisations are working to help address this problem, by providing legal support to those whose lands have been stolen. One such group is the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) in Bogota. But it is extremely difficult and dangerous work. Employees and campaigners belonging to this and similar organisations regularly face intimidation and even death from the gangs who now control the land. 37 land rights workers or campaigners have been murdered since 2002. So it is hardly surprising that despite the brave and continuing efforts of groups like CODHES, only a small percentage of seized land has so far been returned to the rightful owners.

The new president of Columbia, Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office on August 7th, has vowed to continue the battle to reduce violence from these gangs and restore business confidence across the country, but this will be no easy task.

So in the meanwhile, fearful of returning, many of the displaced continue to try and make a living for themselves in the towns and cities. It is to be hoped that a film like ‘Portraits in a Sea of Lies’ will highlight the plight of these people, who often find it hard to gain houses and jobs. Refugees are regularly viewed with mistrust, suspected of being complicit in some way with the groups who forced them to flee. If audiences can learn to sympathise with the character portrayed in the film, then hopefully refugees will be treated with more tolerance and understanding.

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