Heavy rains bring misery to Venezuelan communities hosting Colombian refugees

News Stories, 18 February 2005

© UNHCR/A.Simancas
UNHCR staff bring relief aid to flood victims in Venezuela.

UREÑA, Venezuela, Feb. 16 (UNHCR) Children roused from sleep first noticed the rising flood water lapping at their knees at Sabana Larga, a shanty town in the Venezuelan border municipality of Ureña hosting a hundred people, most of them Colombian refugees.

"They began shouting and woke us up," said one resident. "We took whatever belongings we could with us and rushed out of the house to look for help."

By week's end the worst drenching in recent years had send the residents of Sabana Larga fleeing to a school for safety as the nearby Táchira River overflowed its banks. Venezuela's civil defence authorities helped in the rescue effort. All told, flooding and landslides left 80 people dead and brought misery to more than 176,000 people whose homes in Venezuela were damaged. Another 40,000 were affected in the Colombian side since the rains began on Feb. 5.

"This year the rains were worse than ever," said one Colombian asylum seeker. "We were deep in mud up to our knees. I almost lost my eldest daughter. It was still dark and I had to carry the youngest children with me."

"We visited the neighbourhoods where known asylum seekers lived and found that the floods were devastating," said UNHCR's Shant Dermegerditchian, who led a relief team to the area. "In Sabana Larga, the homes of the asylum seekers were completely destroyed. The entire area is covered in mud and is currently inaccessible."

UNHCR, together with its partner Caritas, provided several dozen affected families with emergency kits including mattresses, water containers, blankets, cooking utensils, cutlery, soap, babies' nappies and other items. In addition, the Venezuelan Red Cross issued hygiene kits to the asylum seekers and the Ureña Town council handed out food.

"The most important concern in the aftermath of the flooding is to find adequate housing for these persons. Furthermore, a general assessment of the needs of the affected population, both asylum seekers and the local population, is required in light of the recovery work that needs to be accomplished and to determine UNHCR's contribution in this respect," said Dermegerditchian.

A UNHCR mission will travel shortly south of Lake Maracaibo, another area where many Colombian asylum seekers live, to evaluate the situation, identify basic needs and assess how UNHCR can assist the local authorities in dealing with this catastrophe.

By William Spindler in Bogota, Colombia
and Andrea Simancas in San Cristóbal, Venezuela