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REFUGEES: Colombian Conflict a Challenge for Neighbours As Well

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Apr 12 2006 (IPS) - Those displaced by the violence in civil war-torn Colombia are in need of assistance, not only within the country itself, but in neighbouring nations in the Andean region, said the head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Americas bureau.

The official, Philippe Lavanchy, said on his return from a visit to South America that as a preventive measure, the UNHCR would like to establish a network in that region in order to have a safety net in place to deal with refugees and the displaced.

On his trip to Colombia early this month, Lavanchy met with members of an indigenous group who were fleeing their villages in the northwestern province of Chocó.

The Wounaan indigenous people fled their territory after two of their teachers were murdered by illegal armed groups, said the official.

Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told IPS in Colombia a few days later that the teachers were killed by the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The murders, and threats to kill 14 other Wounaan community leaders, forced a large proportion of the 8,000 members of the ethnic group to flee to safer areas.

Lavanchy and other UNHCR officials made contact with the first 84 displaced indigenous people, in the town of Istmina, and verified the harassment suffered by the ethnic group.

The incident in Istmina is not an isolated case, but reflects an ongoing phenomenon, because the Wounaan live in an area where illegal armed groups are active and the drug trade is strong, which leads to the harassment of the local indigenous people, who are forced off their land as a result.

Colombia is home to some one million indigenous people, divided into 80 different ethic groups, who account for roughly two percent of the population.

Lavanchy noted that indigenous people are more heavily affected by the conflict than other social groups in Colombia.

United Nations authorities recommended that besides its original mission to provide protection for refugees, the UNHCR take charge of internally displaced persons as well.

In compliance with its new mission, the UNHCR decided that Colombia, which has modern legal instruments specialising in the question of the internally displaced, would serve as a laboratory for its pilot projects in that field.

Colombia also has the third largest population of forcibly displaced persons in the world, after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The UNHCR’s experiences in Colombia “should help us offer solutions in the rest of the agency’s operations, especially in Africa,” said Lavanchy.

Figures on the number of displaced persons in Colombia vary. The government says there are over two million, while the Attorney General’s and Ombudsman’s Offices speak in terms of three million.

But as far as Lavanchy is concerned, what is most important is not the precise number, but rather that every individual in need receives the attention to which they have the right.

For the moment, the UNHCR’s activity in Colombia is relatively modest. “We reach around 200,000 people. We have decided to make an extra effort and reach up to 250,000 more,” he commented.

However, the phenomenon of refugees and internally displaced persons in Colombia also has repercussions in neighbouring countries. In Ecuador there are around 250,000 refugees under the protection of the UNHCR and the Ecuadorian authorities, in addition to another 200,000 in Venezuela and smaller numbers in Panama and Costa Rica.

To lessen the burden placed on the countries bordering Colombia, and to prepare for an eventual increase in the influx of refugees, the UNHCR has obtained a commitment from other Latin American nations like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to cooperate in refugee aid programmes.

But this initiative has run up against the same obstacle as all of the UNHCR’s activities in Latin America: a lack of interest on the part of donor countries.

The problem, explained Lavanchy, is that the region is not currently a focus of concern for the international community. “When you talk about Colombia, people respond that this is a problem that has dragged on for 40 years. On the other hand, Sudan is front page news,” he remarked.

Before being posted to the Americas bureau, Lavanchy was the UNHCR representative in Iran, and although he was responsible for more than two million refugees there, he had no trouble coming up with the funds he needed. “It was an issue of great interest to the international community. Afghanistan was on one side, Iraq on the other. Funding was not a problem,” he said.

By contrast, finding the resources needed for Colombia and other countries of the region is an endless struggle. “That is why we don’t do more, because we don’t have the necessary means for a greater effort,” he noted.

And the situation is even worse in Ecuador, he added. “The work done by our UNHCR colleagues on the ground in Ecuador is extremely insufficient, but they can’t do more, because we can’t get international support,” he stressed.

“Even within the UNHCR, you have to convince the agency that there is work waiting to be done in the region, and that it’s also important to attend to situations that don’t make it into the newspapers,” said Lavanchy. “That’s why we have to convince donors that something needs to be done in this region.”

In talks he held with ambassadors from around 20 countries in Bogotá, they all said they were convinced of the need to support the UNHCR’s work in Colombia. “There’s no problem whatsoever in that respect,” he said.

But when it comes to Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama, or the resettlement of refugees in Argentina, Brazil or Chile, there are absolutely no funds available, he added.

“The world believes that the countries of Latin America are much better off, that a country like Colombia has a lot of resources. That’s why they place priority on nations in other continents. And that creates a lot of problems for us,” Lavanchy told IPS.

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