Armed groups uproot 2,000 more Colombians, UN refugee agency says

22 January 2008

Some 2,000 people, many of them children, have fled the countryside for refuge in cities and villages after being threatened by irregular armed groups in north-eastern Colombia, the latest victims of long-running conflicts that have uprooted 3 million people overall, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

“The local authorities have reacted quickly but say the scope of the displacement is overwhelming their capacity and have requested regional and national help,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva of the latest displacements in the Arauca region.

Colombia has one of the largest populations of concern to UNHCR. Local authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross are distributing emergency humanitarian assistance to these latest victims of the more than four decades of conflict between the Government, rebels and paramilitary groups.

Around half are in the city of Saravena, staying with friends and families or in public buildings like schools and colleges, while the rest have arrived in the cities of Tame, Arauquita, Fortul and the departmental capital Arauca, as well as smaller villages.

There are concerns, especially in Saravena, that the health situation could deteriorate with so many people arriving in the past two weeks. Children also risk missing out on their education unless provisions are made very rapidly. Under Colombian law, the State must guarantee access to education for every displaced child.

The UNHCR team on the ground reports that in some parts of the department, and especially around the town of Tame, the countryside is almost empty. People began fleeing to the cities during the second week of January after irregular armed groups issued threats to those in the countryside. The Government and several non-governmental organizations say several community leaders have been killed since the start of the year.

The violence is also affecting two indigenous groups, the Guahibos and the Siriri-Catleya, with hundreds fleeing. Under Colombian and international principles, special efforts should be made to protect indigenous groups from displacement since they have very strong links to the land, on which their cultural survival depends, Mr. Spindler said.

UNHCR has repeatedly warned that some indigenous communities are in danger of disappearing altogether.

An agency team has been in Arauca since last week monitoring the situation and preparing to open a field office next month. UNHCR has 12 offices in Colombia, where it works to support the State’s efforts to protect and assist the displaced population.