Seeking to protect Colombians fleeing armed conflict in their home country, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is set to officially open a field office today in San Cristobal, Venezuela, near the Colombian border.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told the press today in Geneva that the opening of the office would improve the ability of the agency and its partners to monitor border crossings and ensure that people seeking safety in Venezuela had access to asylum procedures and emergency assistance, if needed.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias is to preside over the inauguration ceremony, accompanied by UNHCR Regional Representative Maria Virginia Trimarco, the spokesman said, noting that UNHCR has several other bases in the area - a regional office for northern South America and Panama located in Caracas, offices in Quito and Lago Agrio, Ecuador, and offices in Bogota, Apartado, Barrancabermaja and Puerto Asis in Colombia.
The inauguration comes days after a UN envoy urged in a statement on 29 August for Colombian paramilitaries "to stop murdering women, children and unarmed civilians and stop forcing tens of thousands of innocent Colombians to flee their homes." Jan Egeland, Kofi Annan's Special Advisor on Colombia, also encouraged the armed groups to release the civilians they had kidnapped and to refrain from further abductions that, he said, "do nothing to further the cause of social reform or of peace."
UNHCR recently expressed concern over the growing numbers of Colombians seeking asylum in other countries. According to the agency, over 6,000 Colombian asylum applications were received in the first half of 2001 in Europe and North America - more than twice the number received over the same period last year.
Earlier this week, Venezuela's National Assembly passed new refugee and asylum legislation, la Ley Orgánico para Refugiados o Refugiadas y Asilados o Asiladas, which establishes the right to seek asylum in the country. The law outlines asylum procedures and the rights and responsibilities of the State and of refugees in Venezuela, which is a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR said.