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VENEZUELA-COLOMBIA: Refugees and Marginalised Share Help and Hardship

Ana Carolina Griffin

CARACAS, Jul 4 2006 (IPS) - Despite occasional rivalries between Colombians and Venezuelans, the armed conflict in Colombia has renewed the links of brotherhood and solidarity between these two “Bolivarian” nations, known as such because both claim Simón Bolívar as hero of independence from Spain.

By legal or illegal means, hundreds of Colombians fleeing the decades-long civil war in their country enter Venezuela every year. According to statistics from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 31,000 applications for refugee status had been received here as of 2003, of which almost 10,000 were accepted.

“We estimate that to date there are some 18,000 people with refugee status,” Ricardo Rincón, the president of Venezuela’s National Commission for Refugees, which has the power to approve or deny applications for refuge, told IPS.

However, the Commission believes that 180,000 to 200,000 Colombians may have entered the country without official registration, which is essential to obtain the benefits to which refugees are entitled.

“Pedro”, a refugee interviewed by IPS, has lunch every day at one of the 5,000 “food houses”, part of a government programme to combat hunger that provides two free meals a day for the most needy, and which, according to its spokespersons, is currently feeding about 750,000 people.

Although he is receiving direct support from government programmes, Pedro is critical of Venezuela, saying that “it doesn’t have a state policy to deal with the refugee crisis.”

The “missions”, as the Venezuela government calls its social programmes, have become for Pedro, as for many other Colombian refugees, the means of “gaining access to the system” of social assistance.

At present Venezuela is implementing 16 missions in the fields of education, health, nutritional support, employment, housing and the environment.

John Fredriksson, the regional representative of UNHCR, sees the use that refugees are making of the social programmes as very positive, because it is an expression of Venezuelan solidarity.

The UNHCR delegation in Venezuela, with a view to the reception given to refugees, is working towards motivating community support, with the aim of improving the public services that Venezuelans share with Colombians, so that while supporting resettlement, the general conditions of life are improved in places receiving little state attention.

Junior, another Colombian refugee, thinks Caracas does have programmes to care for refugees. However, he does not actively participate in the missions because, as he told IPS, “I am still very afraid to walk down the street.”

He left the department (province) of Cundinamarca, in central Colombia, under a death threat from right-wing paramilitary militias, who accused him of being an informer for the leftist guerrillas because he worked for a communications outlet seen as left-leaning.

Now he has refugee status and receives a monthly allowance from UNHCR of 290,000 bolívares (about 160 dollars), though it is not enough to support the six members of his family.

In contrast to other countries receiving large numbers of victims of armed conflicts, there are no refugee camps in Venezuela, which in Fredriksson’s opinion leads to better social integration of refugees in the host country.

Most Colombian refugees are impoverished when they enter Venezuela, and are therefore potential beneficiaries of the social programmes.

Venezuelan law states that “any person shall be considered a refugee when he or she enters the national territory owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, gender, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, or when his or her life, safety or freedom are threatened.”

Colombia is living through a civil war which started over 40 years ago with an insurrection of leftwing rural guerrillas. In the 1980s, extreme rightwing paramilitary militias joined the conflict. According to the latest report from UNHCR, the violence in Colombia has resulted in 2.5 million displaced people.

Since Venezuela became a host country for Colombians fleeing violence in the last few years, increasing numbers of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are taking up the cause of the refugees.

NGOs such as the Support Network for Justice and Peace, which arose in the 1980s as an organisation for the defence of Venezuelans’ human rights, are now also working on behalf of the Colombian refugee population. “We are working to provide medical and psychological support for the refugees,” said Diana González, a psychologist with the Support Network.

Other NGOs, like the Venezuelan chapter of the international Catholic organisation Jesuit Refugee Service, assist Colombians as soon as they reach Venezuelan territory.

Venezuela and Colombia share a 2,219-km border, but there are three main entry points for refugees, all of them in the northwest: Machiques, in the state of Zulia, San Antonio in the state of Táchira, and Guasdualito, in the state of Apure. UNHCR has a field office at each of those locations.

The Jesuit Refugee Service has communities in the border towns of El Nula and Guasdualito. The greatest demand for the organisation’s services was in 2003 and 2004, when they received 652 and 577 people, respectively. Last year the number dropped to 317.

Humberto Rodríguez, a lawyer with JRS, believes that the statistics are explained by the fact that many people do not contact support organisations for fear of being turned over to the authorities, or because they do not know about them.

In contrast with other migrations, Colombian refugees do not arrive en masse, nor in a constant flow, but rather an irregular “drop-by-drop” of people, which makes them “invisible in the eyes of society and the state.”

“The challenge here in Venezuela is to make the needs of these people visible. They come here as a result of the armed conflict in Colombia and they are in need of help and support,” Fredriksson said.

The Colombian community is the largest group of foreign nationals in Venezuela. Unofficial estimates speak of some four million Colombians in the country.

Migration from Colombia to Venezuela has a long history. In the 1970s there was a great wave of immigrants because of the Venezuelan oil bonanza, then it fell off, only to rise again in recent years due to the intensification of the armed conflict in Colombia.

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