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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: For Millions, Nowhere Left to Run

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 5 2005 (IPS) - Forced off their ancestral land by right-wing paramilitaries, leftist guerillas and the army, more than a million people have arrived in Colombia’s cities in search of jobs and housing, but are getting little help from the government, say United Nations officials and development activists working there.

“It is by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western Hemisphere, and yet the plight of those people remains a largely untold story,” said Jan Egeland, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, at a forum on Colombia’s displaced people last week.

“We have to shed light on the forgotten emergency of Colombia. The way it is now it cannot continue,” he added. “We are not doing enough. We need more to do more.”

Observers say that unlike the previous government, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez seems more focused on using military means to defeat the leftist insurgency rather than opting for peaceful negotiations, a strategy that is driving thousands of people into neighbouring Panama and Ecuador, and to other parts of the country.

“The new strategy has drawn more civilians into the conflict,” said Victor Arango, a Latin America and Caribbean specialist with the United Nations Development Programme.

“In 2004, armed groups have displaced an average of 863 persons per day,” he said, noting that Afro-Colombians and indigenous people were among the poorest and most affected by the conflict.

According to government statistics, more than a million internally displaced people are trying to find security, access to public services and jobs in 16 of Colombia’s major urban centres.

“While the Colombian army has regained control of large parts of national territory, it has also affected civilian lives and freedoms,” said Arango, who attributes much of the massive displacement to the regular armed forces’ fight against insurgent groups and drug traffickers.

Albastella Barreto, director of the Foundation Paz y Bien in Cali, told IPS in Spanish that, “The reason why there is eviction and displacement is that certain people want to occupy the people’s land.”

Most of the displaced people are small landowners, and after they have fled, the areas are developed or used for illegal cultivation, according to the Franciscan nun who is working in Cali.

“Many families have also been displaced by fumigation, because if their fields are spayed, the ground is destroyed by pesticides for a long time and cultivation is impossible. They have to leave. This motive for displacement is not recognised by the Colombian government,” she added.

Barreto said that in many cases, the Colombian Army had threatened farmers’ families, ordering them to leave their land and accusing them of aiding the leftist guerillas.

“They steal our territory, kill our people, and we are displaced,” said Colombian official Ventura Diaz in a recent statement urging the U.N. to take action against land grabs.

People who flee to other countries are considered refugees and are entitled under international law to food and shelter, but internally displaced people must usually rely on state assistance, Arango explained.

According to international human rights groups, there are some governmental aid programmes for the internally displaced, but in most cases they fail to include long term-solutions, like reintegration into the community.

“The government is just following a military attitude with a focus on reducing the enemy – and the enemy of the state is the guerilla, not the paramilitaries,” said Barreto, who has helped hundreds of displaced people and families.

“All the strength and resources are going to military programmes, to create pressure and repress the insurgents,” she said.

She said the government offensive had reduced the number of kidnappings, but added that “the war is still alive and most of the people have no security, most people are in fear and are fleeing” to big cities like Bogotá, Cali or Medellin, where they are more or less on their own.

“Many times (officials) say: ‘No, you don’t look like a displaced person’, and the people answer: ‘What does a displaced person look like?'” explained Barreto. “Many are in fear of making the declaration to the governmental office, because of fear of persecution, intimidation, insults and repressions.”

Arango said the official statistics on the number of internally displaced are low because people are afraid to come forward.

According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, the Colombian government has registered 1.6 million internally displaced people over the last 10 years, although the real figure is thought to be above two million.

“Too many are refused official registration, notably those forced to flee due to the fumigation of coca crops and those displaced within their cities. Without this status internally displaced people are often denied the limited assistance of the state,” Arango said.

The government health system is also unable to cope with the large numbers of affected Colombians, most of them women and children.

“The programmes for registered internal refugees run out after three months, and after that there is nothing more,” Arango said.

These programmes, like “Familias en Acción”, provide roughly 75 dollars per month per displaced family, while others pay for the children’s education. “But this is not enough for these families who have lost everything they had. And not with all the money of Plan Colombia can we change the lives of three million displaced people,” Barreto said.

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt – mostly through the so-called Plan Colombia, to which Washington has allocated 1.3 billion dollars.

Its stated goals are social and economic revitalisation, ending the armed conflict and creating an anti-narcotic strategy, although this last has entailed controversial aerial spraying of the fields of peasants who cultivate coca crops in insurgent- or paramilitary-occupied areas.

One reason why this humanitarian crisis continues “out of the public eye is the lack of visual documentation,” said Jennifer Szymaszek who is producing a documentary, together with her colleague Jennifer Friedlin, about the life and work of Albastella Barreto in Cali.

“Unlike the crises in Bosnia and Sudan, for example, which generated shocking images of refugees fleeing their homes and tent cities that sprung up overnight, Colombia’s crisis does not provide such ready-made images. In Colombia, people often sneak away in the middle of the night to avoid the armed groups pursuing them,” said Szymaszek.

At a special session of OCHA’s annual executive committee session Monday, Egeland outlined a new approach to aiding the world’s internally displaced, including assigning clearer responsibility and accountability to individual U.N. humanitarian agencies that have specific experience in certain sectors, like protection, camp management and coordination, and emergency shelter.

Egeland said this “barrier-breaking proposal” would also allow for more predictable and timely funding of operational U.N. agencies and their NGO partners, in part through a Central Emergency Response Fund to support rapid deployment in emergencies.

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