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The young shanty dwellers of Columbia

During the last 30 years in Columbia, between 4 to 6 million people have been displaced from rural villages by the violence of armed groups. Though the paramilitaries have ended their political struggle, many groups still roam the rural areas, forcing villagers from their homes and using the land for criminal activities and drug-smuggling.

Many villagers have fled to the capital and live on the edge of Bogota, where a large shanty town of crude brick and corrugated iron houses sprawls over the hills in the southern suburb of Soacha. Of the 450,000 shanty dwellers here, nearly 32,000 are registered as internal displaced people (IDPs).

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is active in Soacha, co-ordinating the work of humanitarian and support organizations to help the displaced families, who face much hostility and discrimination from the local community. Some refugee children have even been barred from attending local schools and the UNHCR works to ensure displaced families have access to education and health care. Most of the adults would love to return home, if they could be safe from the criminal gangs.

But according to UNHCR staff, despite few opportunities and hostility from locals, children of the displaced families want to stay in the city. The UNHCR’s representative in Columbia believes that these young refugees need to be given more help if they are to have a better future. Often, the only way to earn money and rise from the poverty of the shanty towns is for youngsters to join the criminal or armed gangs which control parts of Soacha, especially at night.

One young refugee, a 17-year-old called Juan, was selling cheap jewellery to make a living, while applying for jobs. Work opportunities are limited by the mistrust of IDPs, since locals suspect them of being complicit in some way with the groups who forced them to flee. Seeking work, Juan was always asked first whether he is a refugee.

With the support of the UNHCR, a youth centre has been created by the young people of Soacha, where they can socialise and take part in workshops. Here they are encouraged in their search for work and to plan for the future. This centre and the activities of the UNHCR in conjunction with other agencies give a clear signal to the refugees that they have not been abandoned and there is hope. Juan is an example of that hope, because he has now found a job giving him the chance of a brighter future.

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