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Colombia Should Protect Displaced People During Covid-19

Afro, Indigenous Communities Especially at Risk


A photograph sent to Human Rights Watch showing the living conditions of a displaced indigenous community in Buenaventura, Colombia. Their limited access to water and health services means that Covid-19 could spread quickly through the community. © Private

Internally displaced people in Colombia often live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to water and food. These families, who fled violence in their home regions and often struggle economically, face further risk from Covid-19.

At least 300,000 people have fled their homes due to conflict-related violence in Colombia since 2017. Roughly 60 percent were indigenous or afro-Colombian. Among them are roughly one hundred indigenous Wounaan in Buenaventura, a western port city. In February 2017, they fled violence and child recruitment by National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas in the neighboring state of Chocó. They have since been living in a community center with limited access to water and health services, increasing the likelihood that the virus would spread quickly during an outbreak.

People cannot go to work due to the national lockdown, in place since late-March 2020, a community leader told Human Rights Watch. In 2017, the government granted them a periodic stipend due to their displacement, but as they cannot leave the community center, they cannot collect or withdraw the cash, he said. All this means they have even less ability to buy food.

Conflict-driven displacement continues during the pandemic. In early April 2020, 74 indigenous Embera families fled their homes after the ELN and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, another armed group, began fighting in the area. They fled to a nearby village and are sleeping on the floors of peoples’ houses in overcrowded conditions. They lack basic hygiene supplies, as well as sufficient food, a humanitarian worker told Human Rights Watch. Like others in the community, they rely on rain for water.

Covid-19 has hampered the often-essential work of humanitarian agencies helping displaced people in Colombia. While the Foreign Affairs Ministry told agencies in March that their work is exempted from the lockdown, many of them limited their activities to reduce the risk of contagion for their employees and the people they assist.

Colombia’s Victims Law and international standards require authorities to provide displaced people with decent shelter, essential food, potable water, and essential medical services.

The government should urgently put in place measures that fulfill these obligations, and protect displaced people’s right to health, including by providing them with food, hygiene supplies, and living facilities where they can practice safe social distancing. It should not leave some of the country’s most vulnerable people to their own devices during this pandemic.

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