Colombia: UN agency voices renewed concern over mass displacements from conflict

7 July 2006

Fighting between irregular armed groups in southern Colombia, threats and targeted killings of civilians are continuing to sow tension in a region where more than 9,000 people have been forced to flee their homes this year, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

The absence of state institutions, including health and education, and the lack of stable economic opportunities are compounding the situation in Nariño department, just one area of a country where more than four decades of civil conflict have driven 2.5 million people from their homes, according to a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team just back from the region.

“The team found that protection concerns in the region remain high and extend to much of the civilian population, including displaced persons and communities at high risk of forced displacement as well as those who have recently returned,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva.

“In such a difficult environment, people in several locations showed a clear reluctance to talk,” he said.

Colombia contains the largest population of concern to UNHCR in any country in the world as more than 40 years of fighting between the Government, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries have hit most regions of the Andean country.

The team reported that there have been more cases of forced displacement in Nariño in the past few weeks. The village of Santa Lucia, for example, is now empty following heavy combat between irregular armed groups at the end of May. Many people are going to the provincial capital of Pasto.

The department, in the south-west of the country and bordering Ecuador, is one of Colombia's poorest and least developed regions, with a population of about half a million. Ethnic minorities make up a relatively large percentage (8 per cent indigenous and 18 per cent Afro-Colombians) and are very badly affected by the conflict.

This is the case all over Colombia, with a much higher incidence of forced displacement among ethnic minorities than in the rest of the population.

In April UNHCR warned that a humanitarian emergency was looming for the indigenous communities, with some threatened with extinction the armed groups encroached upon their land, even torturing and killing their leaders. It stressed the close links these communities have to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends.


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