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UN refugee agency opens more offices in Colombia to cope with 3 million displaced

UN refugee agency opens more offices in Colombia to cope with 3 million displaced

The United Nations refugee agency is opening two more field offices in Colombia, the country with the largest population of concern to the agency, to help cope with the crisis facing some 3 million people driven from their homes by more than 40 years of fighting between the Government, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

This brings to 12 the number of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sites in Colombia and coincides with the launch of a nationwide campaign to make 2007 the Year of the Rights of Displaced People. Colombia has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world.

UNHCR has been working in Colombia since 1997 to back up the authorities' response to the displacement crisis.

“In 2007, we will use the platform of the Year of the Rights of Displaced People to raise public awareness and lobby for displaced people's rights,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva today.

The two new offices are located in Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, and in Villavicencio, south of Bogota, the capital. Both are home to large numbers of displaced.

Antioquia department, of which Medellín is the capital, is one of the regions most affected by the conflict and in the past decade alone, more than 300,000 people have been forced to flee violence there. Many have left rural homes to take refuge in the city.

In Meta department, where Villavicencio is located, more than 64,000 people are registered as displaced, but the authorities acknowledge that the real numbers could be much higher since many people have had no access to registration. The office there will serve as a base for UNHCR to cover the south-eastern parts of the country, where until now it has had little presence due to the remoteness of the area.

The armed conflict, which started in the 1960s, last year forced some 110,000 people to flee their homes, according to provisional Government figures, including 13,000 in Antioquia and 9,000 in Meta. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a much higher national estimate of around 200,000 new cases in 2006.

UNHCR’s 2007 budget for Colombia, where the 3 million displaced account for more than 5 per cent of the total population, is $14 million, up from $11.7 million in 2006. The agency has repeatedly called international attention to the desperate plight of those caught up in fighting or forced to flee, warning that some indigenous communities, displaced from land to which they are tied by their culture and traditions, are in danger of disappearing altogether.