Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, Population

COSTA RICA: Sanctuary for Colombian Refugees

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Jun 19 2007 (IPS) - People fleeing Colombia receive protection and assistance in Costa Rica. But integration is difficult, and the refugees continue to face threats from paid killers sent from the war-torn country they fled.

Costa Rica, a country of 4.1 million, has taken in around 10,000 of Colombia’s 500,000 refugees, said Philippe Lavanchy, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Americas bureau director.

Nearly all of the 10,636 refugees under UNHCR protection in this Central American country are from Colombia.

“My main objective is to stress the importance of the role Costa Rica has played in granting refuge to people” displaced by internal armed conflicts, said Lavanchy last week on a visit to this country in preparation for the activities surrounding World Refugee Day, which is celebrated Jun. 20.

Costa Rica has a strong tradition of providing asylum. “Over 20 years ago, they took in a good number of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugees, and that tradition is still alive today,” said Lavanchy.

One-third of the 30,000 Colombians living in Costa Rica are refugees. The producer of the “Tierra compartida” (Shared Land) radio programme, Henry Rodríguez, is one of them.

The Colombian journalist has been living in Costa Rica since 2000, when he was forced to leave his country after covering the peace talks between the government and guerrillas in the “demilitarised zone” in San Vicente del Cagüán in the southern Colombian province of Caquetá.

“I did not receive direct death threats like three of my colleagues, but we received a string of very strange telephone calls at my house, and we decided to come to Costa Rica,” he told IPS.

“Being a refugee generates problems of rejection from the business community. It carries a stigma,” added Rodríguez.

Another difficulty, said Lavanchy, is that “every time a violent incident occurs, refugees or people of certain nationalities are blamed.”

“Tierra compartida”, which went on the air on Jun. 16 with UNHCR support, will disseminate information on the rights and responsibilities of refugees in Costa Rica.

Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict, in which the army and far-right paramilitaries – which have partially demobilised through negotiations with the government – face off with leftwing guerrillas, has led to the forced displacement of millions of people, while hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

That situation has given rise to the UNHCR’s biggest operation in the Americas.

Colombia has the third largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, after Sudan and Angola. The UNHCR estimates that there are three million IDPs in Colombia, out of a total population of 44 million.

The Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a respected Colombian human rights group, put the number somewhat higher, at nearly 3.7 million, in October 2005.

Close to 1.8 million IDPs had registered with the Colombian government as of April. However, many do not do so for fear of reprisals from armed groups.

More than 130 Colombian and international organisations, including the UNHCR, decided to declare 2007 the Year of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Colombia.

The campaign is aimed at drawing attention to those displaced by the armed conflict and promoting their rights.

The U.N. agency says that while the United Nations, local and international NGOs and the Colombian government recognise the existence of the problem, there are discrepancies as to the measures taken to deal with it.

The UNHCR says the Colombian state’s response has focused on humanitarian aid rather than a lasting solution, such as returning land stolen from the displaced by paramilitary groups.

With respect to the refugees, Lavanchy underscored the “positive” attitude taken by the government of Costa Rica, where he said “they receive protection and assistance.”

However, to achieve true integration, it is important to guarantee people’s safety, he added.

“There are serious problems, not only in Costa Rica. It’s obvious that we cannot request one police officer per refugee, but cases in which safety is threatened must be given priority treatment,” said the UNHCR official, referring to Colombians who have been murdered in this country, presumably by “sicarios” (paid gunmen) who followed them here from Colombia.

The Costa Rican government is drawing up reforms of the country’s migration laws, which would strengthen the confidentiality surrounding the paperwork carried out by asylum-seekers and improve the safety of refugees.

Lavanchy, who has spoken of the need to redistribute Colombian refugees in the region, praised Brazil’s 2004 proposal to set up a regional resettlement programme for Latin American refugees. Brazil has since accepted urgent Colombian refugee cases, and Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay have also joined the initiative.

Ecuador has felt the heaviest impact of Colombia’s refugee crisis, having received 250,000 Colombians, while 200,000 have crossed into Venezuela. However, in both cases the number of Colombians who have actually sought or applied for formal refugee status or asylum is much smaller.

The resettlement plan forms part of the Mexico Plan of Action to Strengthen International Protection of Refugees in Latin America, which was signed by more than 20 Latin American countries in 2004.

The “Borders of Solidarity” and “Cities of Solidarity” programmes are other aspects of the plan. The former is implemented along Colombia’s borders with Venezuela and Ecuador, where special projects for refugees are carried out and the local population, which suffers the burden of the influx of refugees, is provided with support.

The Argentine and Ecuadorian capitals, meanwhile, are among the “Cities of Solidarity” where the integration of vulnerable groups of refugees, like women-headed families, is facilitated.

“In many cases, the support does not involve money, but is a question of making it possible, through legislation, for these people to lead normal lives, to work, and to have access to schools and medical services.”

UNHCR representative in Costa Rica Jozef Merkx emphasised family reunification initiatives. “We are designing protocols, in conjunction with migration authorities, and to do so we need the support of the Costa Rican consulate in Colombia, for the issuing of visas to family members,” he explained.

The U.N. agency’s office in Costa Rica granted 380 microcredits for a combined total of 250,000 dollars “to both Costa Ricans and migrants, because what is important is integration,” said Merkx.

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