The United Nations refugee agency is distributing emergency items and food rations to more than 300 people who fled into Ecuador from Colombia in the latest spasm of over four decades of conflict between Government forces, leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitaries and criminal gangs that has driven 3 million Colombians from their homes.
“So far, we have registered 315 people, more than half of them children,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva today, noting that according to the new arrivals, many more could be on the way.
“Many in the group are still very visibly shocked and scared. They say they fled after an irregular armed group killed the local schoolteacher and threatened other people,” she said. “Local authorities on the Colombian side of the border report fighting in the area.”
The group, from the Colombian village of Tallambi, lived on the opposite bank of the river that forms the border, and a large number are Awa indigenous people. UNHCR deployed a team of humanitarian workers to the Ecuadorian village of Chical on Sunday to distribute aid in coordination with partner organizations.
The newcomers have been staying with local families but the housing capacity of the small community is fast reaching its limit. UNHCR and the local authorities are getting a shelter ready in case more people cross over in the coming days. The Awa live in their own territory spanning the border and have suffered greatly from increased violence in the southern Colombian region of Nariño in recent years.
In general, ethnic minorities in Colombia have been disproportionately affected by the conflict and UNHCR has warned that some indigenous communities risk disappearing altogether once the cultural ties linking them to their home areas are broken.
Last month, a group of some 40 Afro-Colombians arrived in northern Ecuador, also from Nariño. They have asked to remain in Ecuador as they feel it is unsafe to return. UNHCR is coordinating efforts with the national refugee office for a speedy answer to their asylum request.
Overall some 250,000 Colombians are in Ecuador after fleeing the conflict in Colombia, which with some 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) contains the largest population of concern to UNHCR in any country in the world as the fighting has hit most regions of the Andean country. There are also an estimated 200,000 Colombians in need of protection in Venezuela.