UN refugee agency steps up activities along Colombian-Venezuelan border

UN refugee agency steps up activities along Colombian-Venezuelan border

To meet the needs of a growing number of Colombian refugees arriving in Venezuela after fleeing violence and threats, United Nations refugee agency is stepping up its intervention along the border.

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) is as of this month extending activities along Venezuela’s side of the border with Colombia, with new projects in the Amazonas region to the south, and the “Sur del Lago” region further to the north.

In a press briefing in Geneva today, Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman explained that intervention will begin with the training of armed forces and civilian authorities in refugee law and human rights. The aim in both regions will at first be “conflict-prevention, to reduce the risk of tension that large influxes of people can cause,” he added.

Testimonies by the civilian population, reported by UNHCR, detail threats, targeted killings, and widespread intimidation that affect especially the rural areas in Colombia, They also voiced general concern that violence would flare before the upcoming elections in October.

The humanitarian situation in Colombia is increasingly cause for concern; the rates of forced displacement registered last year in the region of Catatumbo to the north and Arauca further to the south were some of the highest in the whole of Colombia. These regions see also some of the worst indices of targeted killings, landmine accidents and armed fighting, explained Mr. Redmond.

In the Arauca region alone, UNHCR found evidence during a fact-finding mission earlier this month that the number of new cases recorded in the national system for registration of displaced people tripled last year: from 1,000 in the first six months to 3,000 in the second half of 2006. This number does not include the displaced people who do not come forward for registration.

Figures for the first six months of 2007 are not yet consolidated, but local authorities say the numbers keep rising. In the town of Tame, the authorities dealt with 2,500 new cases of displacement between January and May of this year, compared with 1,250 in the whole of 2006. The situation is similar in the rest of Arauca, where the country’s two guerrilla group, the FARC and the ELN, having been fighting for territory since March of last year.

Some 2 million people are on the national registry for displaced people in Colombia with official estimates that another million have been victims of forced displacement but are not registered. UNHCR and the Venezuelan government calculate that some 200,000 Colombians may be in need of international protection in Venezuela. UNHCR has three field offices on the Venezuelan side of the border.