Colombian authorities and United Nations humanitarian officials have begun a joint mission to the country’s remote and impoverished Middle San Juan River region to assess how best to help more than 1,200 Afro-Colombians there displaced by recent fighting in the long-running civil war.
Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will conduct a census of the region’s internally displaced population and then evaluate their needs, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters today.
At least 1,200 people have fled their homes in the Middle San Juan River region of Chocó province, a tropical rainforest area about 280 kilometres northwest of the capital Bogotá, because of fighting this month between left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries.
Ms. Pagonis said local authorities believe that up to 6,000 other people are also suffering because of an economic blockade imposed by irregular armed groups since early July.
The region is extremely isolated, with the San Juan River and its tributaries the only means of transport. The blockade means communities down-river do not have access to such basic products as fuel, sugar and salt, while doctors, teachers and schoolchildren have been unable to resume their regular activities.
So far this week the joint mission have visited 15 Afro-Colombian and indigenous river communities as well as the region’s main town, Itsmina. While people who have fled to Itsmina have received some aid already, the more remote communities have not. Locals interviewed also say many others are hiding in the rainforest or have fled to the mountains.
UNHCR is urging all sides in Colombia’s decades-long civil war to respect civilians and not restrict their freedom of movement or access to essential goods and services.