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Colombia: UN refugee agency voices fresh alarm for civilians caught in armed conflict

Colombia: UN refugee agency voices fresh alarm for civilians caught in armed conflict

Dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in Colombia are at risk because of an upsurge in violence, the United Nations refugee agency said today in the latest of a series of recent warnings about the ongoing impact of more than four decades of civil conflict that have already driven 3 million people from their homes.

“As a matter of urgency, we ask local authorities to respond to the needs of those who have already been displaced,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva of the most recent displacements in the north-western Chocó region near the border with Panama.

“We also request the government of Panama to fulfil its obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers,” he added, noting that hundreds have fled to other parts of Colombia, a few have crossed into Panama, and thousands more are trapped by the fighting between the military and an irregular armed group that has controlled the area for years.

Nine Afro-Colombian communities around the Rio Arquia are at risk, some 450 families or about 2,500 people. People fear more combat and want to leave the area altogether but are afraid they will not be allowed to return home if they go now. To the south, Afro-Colombian communities are fleeing fighting between two irregular armed groups. On Wednesday, 400 people fled Pichima to escape the violence.

Indigenous communities are also affected. Members of the Embera group are fleeing their river settlements due to a marked deterioration in the humanitarian situation. Their region is controlled by irregular armed groups and in recent months there has been an increase in selective killings, disappearances, threats and food blockades.

Twenty-five communities along the Bojaya River are at risk. Some Embera families have already fled to other parts of Chocó and elsewhere in Colombia, while a small number have reached Panama. Their only means of escape is by small boat across dangerous territory. It is likely more are on the move but are too scared to approach the authorities.

UNHCR calls on all actors in the armed conflict in Colombia to respect international humanitarian law, the right to freedom of movement and the right of civilians to seek safety both inside and outside their country,” Mr. Redmond said.

Chocó is the country’s poorest region, with a population largely made up of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Of the 3 million internally displaced people ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number.

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.