Venezuela: mission registers fleeing Colombians in Zulia border state

Briefing Notes, 21 May 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 21 May 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Over the past week, we have been carrying out an assessment mission in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, where hundreds of indigenous Wayúu people have fled from fighting and massacres by illegal armed groups in Colombia.

We have registered 306 indigenous Wayúu who have sought refuge in Venezuela, although the total number who have fled may be as high as 500 according to the indigenous leaders. It is difficult to get a precise count as many of those who fled have sought shelter in the homes of family members, and some are reluctant to come forward and to be identified. The majority of the displaced are women and children.

The Wayúu fled their native community of Bahia Portete in La Guajira, Colombia, over the past several weeks, following armed attacks and massacres by illegal armed groups, in which at least 30 people reportedly were killed and another 60 are still missing.

Given their strong cultural attachments to their native territory, approximately 40% of the displaced have expressed a desire to return to their homes. However, as the security situation remains precarious, there is no immediate prospect of facilitating the return of these people to their lands.

The scarcity of resources and space as well as the general impoverishment of the indigenous communities are presenting significant problems for both the displaced and their hosts. We are working with UNICEF, PAHO, the Red Cross, and other NGOs and government authorities to organize the urgent delivery of food, medicine and other supplies to the affected persons. The President of Venezuela's National Refugee Commission also attended a meeting of the organizations involved in helping this group on Wednesday, and agreed with UNHCR on the need to provide protection to the victims of the Colombian conflict.