New Zealand's Colombian community calls for solidarity as violence continues

Members of New Zealand's Colombian community are gathering this weekend to protest against ongoing unrest in their homeland.

As many as 37 people have died in the South American country after a proposed tax reform sparked nationwide protests and violence, with at least 89 more reported missing.

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and with many people already facing poverty and extreme hardship, Colombians from all sectors of society have mobilised against the reforms, with everyone from activists, students, teachers and doctors taking part in both peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrations.

Although the backlash eventually led to Colombia's president Iván Duque dropping the tax reform, the protests have now continued into a second week and have morphed into a broader struggle against poverty, police violence and inequality in the health and education systems. 

Human rights groups say the Government's response to the demonstrations has been a "complete overreaction", with protesters met with "premeditated violence by government forces" and are calling for calm.

Members of the Colombian community living in New Zealand say "numerous atrocities" have been carried against the civilian population. They are hoping to raise awareness of what is happening in their country as well as show their support for those struggling in their homeland at gatherings in Auckland, Nelson and Invercargill on Sunday. Events were also held in Wellington and Christchurch on Saturday.

One of those involved in organising the Auckland event - who asked to be referred to only by his first name, Juan - said it was tough seeing the situation unfold back home.

"The cities are on fire," he told Newshub.

"The armed forces in the country are attacking civilians, there is censorship on social media and journalists are facing threats and attacks.

"I feel really sad about what's going on."

He said many Colombians here were concerned for their family and friends as the violence continues.

"It's a feeling of sadness, uncertainty, stress."

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - APRIL 28 : National police officers take position during a national strike Against the Duque package and the tax reform on April 28, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia. Colombia has the minimum wage around $ 250 per month where people are unhappy about corruption, unemployment, and inequality by Government. (Photo by Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty

Amnesty International NZ community manager Maragret Taylor says the now-cancelled tax reforms that triggered the unrest came at a time when many in the country were already struggling to make ends meet.

"That effectively was a step too far for many Colombians so they took to the streets and started protesting," she told Newshub.

She said although some protests have been violent, there have also been a large number of peaceful demonstrations. However, in both cases the state has responded with an iron fist.

"There has been a complete overreaction from the government which has sent in the military. So we are seeing peaceful protests and some violent protesters met with premeditated violence by government forces, whether that be police or the military."

She said Amnesty was urging leaders here to "use all diplomatic levers to call on the Colombian government to desist from that level of violence that we are seeing and to ensure the rights of peaceful protesters are respected".

'Please speak up against what is occurring in Colombia'

Juan, who is from the city of Medellín and who has lived in New Zealand for more than three years, says the Colombian expat community has written an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to raise its concerns about the situation. 

The letter calls upon Ardern to "be the voice of Colombian civilians".

"New Zealand has often been the world’s good citizen when it comes to condemning state policies of oppression and genocide. This is why we are imploring you to be our people's voice with this letter."

"Please speak up against what is occurring in Colombia."

Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March, who will be speaking at the Auckland event, said New Zealand has a responsibility to speak up against what is happening.

"I think the Government should raise concerns with our Colombian counterparts in regards to the state-sanctioned violence that is happening," he told Newshub.

"People have a right to peacefully protest government reforms and the government shouldn't be resorting to violence as a result of these protests."

He said New Zealand shouldn't turn a blind eye to what was happening just because it was far away.

"It's important to stand in solidarity with people facing state-sanctioned violence no matter where it is happening."