A desperate situation faces more than one hundred families who fled Colombia in 2002 following death threats. One group of eight families, who had applied for asylum in Australia with the help of the CUT (Colombian Trade Union Congress), was forced to flee to El Salvador due to repeated death threats while their cases were being considered.
The group includes trade union leaders, state sector workers, community leaders and a journalist. Amnesty International’s request to the Australian government for their resettlement illustrates the situation facing those at the forefront of the struggle in Colombia. Two are widows of the president and vice-president of National Union of Mining and Energy Workers, forced off a Drummond company bus by paramilitaries and assassinated in March 2001. When they denounced the killings of their husbands they received death threats against themselves and their families. A local union leader and a key witness in the case organised protests against the killings. Paramilitaries sought him at the Drummond workers’ camp, forcing him to flee to Bogotá and on to El Salvador. In October 2001 the president of the union at Drummond was killed by paramilitaries.
A community leader in El Queremal campaigned against the expansion of hydroelectric projects in her region, as peasant farmers were being pressured to sell off their land cheaply. The community leaders were threatened 36 times, accused of being guerrilla collaborators. In May 2000 a massacre took place in another area where hydroelectric projects were planned and in August 2000 a nearby community was the target of a massacre. By late November 2000 the paramilitaries had moved into El Queremal, threatening to kill the leaders.
Another community leader in the group was forced to flee his area following paramilitary death threats. Two of his brothers were killed. A further refugee, a leader in the healthworkers union, was seriously injured in an assassination attempt, continued to receive death threats and was repeatedly followed.
The eighth member of the group was a television journalist who had to hide her journalist sister and three children in her house as her sister was receiving paramilitary death threats. After her sister had left the country she started to receive death threats against herself and her child. She moved house and changed her child’s school but when she started making a video about the internal situation in Colombia for an Australian NGO she again received death threats.
Despite these clear histories of politically motivated threats and assassination attempts, the group have been treated, like so many other Colombian refugees around the world, as pariahs. Although they arrived in El Salvador with prior agreement and were recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the group have been detained, had their documents taken from them, have not been allowed to work and have no economic support. After many months considering their application, Australia denied them political asylum in July 2002. The families are now desperate and, in the words of one of them, "dying of hunger".
Besides these families, the CUT knows of 30 temporary refugees in the USA, 10 in Sweden and 10 in Spain. One family in Spain reports that they are "living on US$120 a month, having to put up with discrimination from the inhabitants of this city and eating promotional hamburgers. It is the cheapest there is". In a way, these are the lucky ones and external refugees are just the tip of an iceberg; internal displacement is the unseen fate for many more trade unionists and community leaders. Of teachers alone, 2100 arrived in Bogotá in 2001, displaced from other regions. Many activists who flee to Bogotá are targeted by the Bloque Capital paramilitary units. Then there are those who don’t make it that far. At the end of October 2002 the leader of the Cimitarra Peasants Association, Gabriela Vélez, was taken at an illegal roadblock by the AUC paramilitaries. She was tortured and after two days was shot twice in the head and killed.
Against this background, Germany has secretly obtained EU permission to veto any Schengen area visas already granted to Colombians if they are on Germany’s list of undesirables. This treatment was previously doled out only to nationals of Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea: Bush’s "Axis of Evil". While the Colombian government is a favoured ally of Bush in it’s supposed fight against terrorism, its nationals are the pariahs of Europe.