Bogotá’s Indigenous street children are the face of Colombia’s unrelenting cycle of violence

Bogotá's Indigenous street children are the face of Colombia's unrelenting cycle of violence

Deisy Milena, 18, with her 5-year-old daughter, sells her creations at a station in Bogotá. Forcibly displaced by the armed conflict, Indigenous children are forced to grow up early living on the streets of Bogotá.

(Roxana Baspineiro)

In one of the most visible and disturbing signs of Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict, Indigenous children can be seen scattered throughout the cold streets of Bogotá, the country’s capital. Dressed in their worn traditional clothing, they sit outside of bus stations, beg for change, cling to their mothers – their safest refuge – and play amongst themselves, oblivious to the apathy that surrounds them. Displaced from their lands, these children and their families arrive in the capital fleeing the violence of the conflict. Their faces reveal the harsh lives they have already led at such a tender age.

According to a report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Colombia’s Indigenous population is estimated at a 1.5 million inhabitants, or 3.4 per cent of the total population. 115 Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendent communities are recognised as collective rights holders by the country’s Constitution.

However, along with Afro-descendent communities and peasant farmers, many Indigenous communities are subject to forced displacement and dispossession from their lands due to a series of factors ranging from drug trafficking networks, struggles for control of land, the impact of mining, persecution, murders and poverty. This has forced many to migrate to the cities.

According to the latest National Population and Housing Census from 2018, around 19,000 Indigenous people found themselves in a situation of subsistence in the capital city alone, a figure which has continued to increase since then.

The Emberá people of the Chocó region are one of the communities which have been forced to move the most in recent years. In 2022 alone, some 1,000 Indigenous people arrived in Bogotá and settled in the well-known Enrique Olaya Herrera National Park amidst tensions and confrontations with district authorities that lasted for months.

As if fleeing violence was not enough, Indigenous populations face degrading conditions when they arrive in the city. They live in precarious shelters or daily rent tenancies, both of which are overcrowded and lack adequate sanitation. In addition, most of these accommodations are located in marginalised areas of the city, which exposes them to additional dangers.

Many Indigenous people in the city sell their colourful handicrafts on the informal market to make ends meet. Women also do domestic work, while men often find work in construction. Those who are less fortunate often resort to begging. Their children are forced to adapt to harsh adult realities at a young age.

Indigenous children in the streets: a failure of the state protection system

In order to navigate the fast-paced life of the metropolis of almost eight million, children are forced to hone their survival skills. It is common to see them in environments unsuitable for minors, such as the city’s luxury bars and restaurants, where they often hang out on street corners or dance to urban music that is alien to their culture in order to earn spare change.

“A lot of people tolerate children being on the street without knowing what that implies, not only in terms of physical risks, because they can have accidents or get sick, but also that there is a protection system that is failing to take care of these children,” says María Kathia Romero Cano, child labour specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to Cano, an important but often overlooked factor that contributes to this intractable problem is the role played by ordinary citizens. As she explains, indifference and social silence help to render invisible the plight of Indigenous populations. This is further reflected in the actions of authorities. In one way or another, society as a whole is complicit.

“If I see a child selling on the corner, I have to ask myself why they are there. I can’t be satisfied with the fact that they are there. There has to be a response of some kind. If there is no citizen demand to address this normalised situation, nothing will happen,” says Cano.

While this tragedy impacts all members of the Indigenous populations expelled from their territories, it is their children who are the most vulnerable. Their small bodies bear the brunt of violations of fundamental rights such as the right to life, food, care, housing and access to education.

According to a recent press release by Unicef and Save the Children, an estimated 16.5 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean will require humanitarian support in 2023 alone. Indigenous and Afro-descendant children are identified as the most threatened groups, with malnutrition being one of the problems they face.

“In my family, we don’t eat every day. From time to time we go hungry. When we have nothing to eat there’s nothing we can do, we have to work on an empty stomach. Sometimes we have nothing but rice to eat or aguapanela [a sugar cane beverage] to drink. It’s difficult for us when that happens. We don’t know what else to do,” says Deisy Milena, 18, of the Emberá Chamí people, who subsists by selling the handicrafts she learned to make with her grandmother.

Deisy’s story is not fundamentally different from those of many other Indigenous children who arrive in the city with their displaced families and who are forced to grow up on the streets. Sitting on the ground inside the tunnel leading to a Transmilenio bus station in the centre of the capital, she agrees to be interviewed. “I come here every day because the tunnel protects me from the rain and the cold. People already know me and give me permission to work here,” she says as she arranges the necklaces for display on the ground.

“My parents were displaced by the guerrillas. They are from Risaralda and they brought us here at a very young age. We don’t know what happened to our land, we haven’t received word in a long time. Now we’re surviving in the city without any support,” she says. As Deisy explains, she has been working since she was 12 years old, has lived on the streets and is the mother of a five-year-old girl, who has become “the driving force” of her existence. There is a sense of maturity about her, forged on the streets, that belies her young age. As she puts it, it’s like she never really had a childhood.

“Children on the streets, even if they are with their parents, are exposed to a series of risks that society does not perceive. These include sexual exploitation, forced labour or situations of slavery,” says Cano of the ILO. “These children have been forced out of their cultural contexts, have had their schooling interrupted and are faced with new forms of socialisation that can be more or less difficult,” she says.

“They have been stripped of the opportunities they would otherwise have in their territories under normal circumstances. The conditions here [in Bogotá] are significantly different, including a very hostile climate. These conditions will create difficulties for them as adults because they will not develop the skills required to adapt to a working environment in the city. Why? Because they are not within the educational system or any training system to prepare them for employment. The difficulties that these children face now will be evident in their adult life,” says Paola Andrea Giraldo Gutiérrez, who is responsible for children and adolescents for Bogotá’s District Secretariat of Social Integration.

All of the interviewees agree that one of the shortcomings in public policy, both in Colombia as well as in other countries in the region, is the lack of knowledge and more precise information on these populations. In other words, not knowing exactly who they are, where they are and what they do makes it difficult to develop responses to address urgent needs. “They need to be fully identified, not just what has caused their displacement but what the true consequences of this are,” says Cano.

Returning to their land: the eternal wait

The signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016 between the Colombian government and the now defunct FARC-EP guerrillas provided barely a glimmer of hope to these populations, who continue to be among the most affected by the conflict, as violence persists in their territories. As a result, return to their lands remains a distant promise.

“The state is not taking sufficient actions to guarantee rights. There are serious difficulties with the problem of safe return to the territories. I heard the story of Luz Elena, a girl who returned [to her land] and a month later died from a gunshot wound to the head. There really needs to be greater inter-institutional coordination between the Bogotá government, the national government and the responsible bodies,” says Ati Quigua, an Indigenous leader and Bogotá city councillor.

According to a report by the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), of the 115 Indigenous peoples in the country, at least 50 suffered human rights violations in 2022, considered one of the worst years since the signing of the Peace Agreement. A total of 453,018 Indigenous people were victims (of threats and displacement, etc.), a number 23 times higher than in 2021.

Meanwhile, according to a report by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), at least 44 Indigenous leaders were assassinated in 2022 and about eight have been assassinated so far in 2023, a figure that is likely to rise.

“Perhaps the most visible and worrying aspect of the war in Colombia is the situation of [Indigenous] children who are victims of the conflict” and the directly related issue of “subsistence in the capital,” says Ati Quigua, who highlights the urgent need for intersectional gender and family approach to reparation for Indigenous children and their families.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson