A senior United Nations refugee official is heading to South America this weekend for talks in Colombia on the growing humanitarian crisis there and its effects on neighbouring countries.
Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane is expected to arrive Saturday in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, where he will then travel to the northwestern Atrato River region.
“This area was in the news in May 2002 when 117 people were killed in Bojaya after a missile hit a church where local residents had taken shelter during fighting between irregular armed groups,” Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said at a briefing in Geneva.
Since 1996, the Atrato River, one of Colombia's main waterways, has suffered from an almost complete blockade caused by parties to the country's internal conflict. More than 180,000 people live along the river, mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that are suffering from a shortage of essential items like medicines, salt, cooking oil, and fuel. Illnesses like malaria are reportedly gaining ground in the region due to the lack of proper treatment as a result of the long blockade.
While in Colombia, Mr. Morjane is expected to meet President Alvaro Uribe and other senior members of the government as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), members of the international community, internally displaced persons associations and other representatives of civil society.
Although the number of new displaced people registered in Colombia in 2003 – 172,000 – was lower than the previous year, the scale of displacement continues to grow every day, making this the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most serious internal displacement situations in the world, according to UNHCR.
Between 2000 and 2003 the Colombian Government registered more than 1 million displaced people, while unofficial estimates put the total number of displaced since 1985 at 3 million.
During his trip, Mr. Morjane is also scheduled to visit neighbouring Ecuador, where a growing number of Colombians fleeing the conflict are seeking asylum, Mr. Janowski said. In the last three years, nearly 21,000 Colombians have applied for refugee status in Ecuador, including 11,000 in 2003 alone.