Migrants, Multiculture, Our People

“They are united by war, we must be united by peace”

This is the view of Dagoberto Gaitán Vargas, a Colombian immigrant who had to go into exile to find political asylum in the United Kingdom, where he has lived for over two decades. The son of coffee producers, born in the rural area of Tolima and with a life of militancy behind him, he has a political and social perspective on Colombia, observes the past and looks toward a future of hope. The Prisma series: “Immigrants and activists in the UK”.


Dagoberto Gaitán Vargas.

Josefina Viano


Dagoberto had to survive paramilitary violence leaving behind a political career, a family and a community. In his hometown he was a leader of the left representing his people, he was a government advisor, councillor and public servant. He fought alongside and represented peasants who wanted to change everything.

He had to go because he was being persecuted and violence was on the increase. But his fighting spirit didn’t leave him even when he arrived in London. He didn’t lie down, they couldn’t beat him.

He soon approached groups, movements, wherever immigrants met, debated, mixed and organised. Wherever politics was done, the politics that changes realities, creates links, brings results, works for and accompanies what it thinks is best for the vast majority.

What led you to emigrate from Colombia?

I had to emigrate in 2003 because the political situation was so complex and difficult for all of us who thought differently. At that time there was a system in operation whereby any trade unionist, social leader, peasant or member of a communal group was persona non grata for those who governed. Paramilitary groups and the government at the time sought to put an end to progressive political movements like Patriotic Union, a movement which at that time I belonged to. A lot of us moved out, not only from the department of Tolima but also from Antioquia, from Zona Bananera, from the Llanos, Santander and the department of Guaviare.

Many of us fought for changes like the Agrarian Reform, one of the pillars the peasant movement has striven for for years. But anyone who fought for the land, anyone who joined a union or an association, was persecuted and massacred. There was a high level of repression, very harsh, they tortured and murdered leaders more and more often. We had no alternative but to emigrate.

How was it when you arrived in the United Kingdom? What were the main challenges you had to face at that time?

I was 45 years old, I applied for political asylum and they accepted me. I have lived in the United Kingdom since then. Emigrating from one’s country of birth is always a very big and abrupt change. The first barrier was the language. One advantage I had was that my sister welcomed me into her house until they gave me the ‘travel document’ which allowed me to travel to any part of the world except Colombia. One always misses one’s country and one’s people. After five years I obtained British nationality and so I was able to return to Colombia as a tourist. In that time I couldn’t see my daughters and it was very difficult for me, for them, for everybody. When I obtained the status, I was able to work and things started to change.

How did you reshape your life as an activist in London? What did you do with everything you had lived through and learnt, with your political baggage?

At first, I started to make contacts, to find out where to go. I approached an organisation called Coras, the Colombian Refugees Association, which I soon joined as a volunteer.

A lot of us in Coras were refugees. There we began to get to know each other, to mix, to feel the others as family. You meet people with the same way of thinking as you and you keep fighting for the defence of human rights, in co-ordination with movements from other countries. We worked alongside Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans and Chileans, and bit by bit you feel part of a family, fighting for the same cause.

From the moment I arrived in London, I began my activism. I have never untied myself from social movements, I have always been and always will be a social activist. When I arrived, as my English was not fluent, I involved myself in the area of cleaning, I was a cleaner, and I affiliated myself to unions and different immigrant organisations. In organisations like United Voices of the World we fought hard to win rights for workers. There was the mobilisation for the ‘London living wage’, for a decent wage for workers. We also fought against the discrimination of workers in their jobs. We still continue fighting for these demands.

I also participated in the ‘No-one is illegal’ campaign. At that time the police carried out raids to capture immigrants on the streets of London. We organised a large movement and put a brake on these practices. We fought and continue fighting for recognition of the Latin American community in the United Kingdom.

Is it possible to work for Colombia, being in the United Kingdom?

Very much so. In this struggle we have built and helped build organisations that work through international solidarity. British organisations like Justice for Colombia and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign which have given great support to the peace process in Colombia. Our lobby is to denounce and show the world, the international community, what is going on in Colombia, which the media hides.

From here we see what happens in Colombia and, in international terms, there is much that can be done. The marches, for example, during Colombia’s national strike, showed the world what was really happening there. We did large mobilisations with Colombians and people from many countries who were in solidarity with Colombia and supported us. That worked as a barometer to show the world what the police and the then president, Ivan Duque, were doing.

How is your activism going at the moment? What are your projects?

I am the co-founder of ‘Casa Colombia’, a place for Latin Americans where we can spend time together and participate in cultural events. The British government recognised it as an organisation recently and currently we are looking for premises.

I also participated in training sessions run by the Colombian consulate. And through the ‘Panel for Entrepreneurship’ I am setting up a business called ‘Magic Tour Expedition’ dedicated to tourism in London and Colombia.

We are convinced we must continue fighting, from wherever we are and with whatever tools we have. We have to fight for immigrants and for Latin American peoples.

With respect to the change of government in 2022, how do you perceive the current situation in Colombia?

Colombia has been one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

The owners of power are those who have the media. The same thing happens with justice. Gustavo Petro’s government is making an enormous effort currently, we are on the brink of a great opportunity in Colombia’s history. I feel proud of the triumph of a progressive president, after such a long time, who is really trying to improve things for large sections of society, despite the heavy resistance of those who governed over the last few decades, of the traditional circles of power.

What message would you give to social movements and young people in Colombia?

The right to live in peace is fundamental. The fight for human rights must happen avoiding the power of the traditional media. We have to favour new ways of communicating, fight for our peoples’ truth, support governments that defend their communities.

In 2026 we have to keep fighting to have again a government that is on the side of human rights, of work, of industry, of tourism.

The right unites around war. To the young I would ask that they fight for us to unite for the defence of unity, of the environment, of justice and work.

But, mainly, it is for us to unite for peace. While they [the right] are united by war, we must be united by peace.

(Translated by Philip Walker – Email: philipwalkertranslation@gmail.com) Photos supplied by the interviewee and authorised for publication

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