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Assistant High Commissioner to Colombia, Ecuador

Briefing notes

Assistant High Commissioner to Colombia, Ecuador

23 January 2004

The growing humanitarian crisis in Colombia and its effects on neighbouring countries will be on the agenda when the UN refugee agency's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, starts a week-long mission to South America this weekend.

Arriving in the Colombian capital, Bogota, on Saturday, the Assistant High Commissioner will then travel to Colombia's north-western Atrato River region. This area of Colombia was in the news in May 2002 when 117 people were killed in Bojaya after a missile hit a church where local residents had taken shelter during fighting between irregular armed groups. The Atrato River, one of Colombia's main waterways, has suffered since 1996 from an almost complete blockade caused by parties to the country's internal conflict. More than 180,000 people live along the river, mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that are suffering from a shortage of essential items like medicines, salt, cooking oil, and fuel. Illnesses like malaria are reportedly gaining ground in the region due to the lack of proper treatment as a result of the long blockade.

During his stay in Colombia, Mr. Morjane is expected to meet President Álvaro Uribe and other senior members of the government as well as non-governmental organisations, members of the international community, internally displaced persons associations and other representatives of civil society.

Although the number of new displaced people registered in Colombia in 2003 was lower than the previous year, the scale of displacement continues to grow every day, making this the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere, and one of the most serious internal displacement situations in the world.

Over one million displaced people were registered by the Colombian government between 2000 and 2003, while unofficial estimates put the total number of displaced since 1985 at three million. Last year, the government registered more than 172,000 new displaced persons.

During his trip, the Assistant High Commissioner will also visit neighbouring Ecuador, where a growing number of Colombians fleeing the conflict are seeking asylum. In the last three years, nearly 21,000 Colombians have applied for refugee status in Ecuador. In 2003 alone, Ecuador received some 11,000 applications for refugee status from Colombian citizens.

In the capital, Quito, Mr. Morjane will recognize Ecuador's compliance with its international obligations and respect for humanitarian principles. In Lago Agrio, one of the most sensitive spots along the Colombian border where, in the past, massive influxes of Colombians have taken place, Mr. Morjane will visit quick impact projects designed to strengthen refugee protection and also benefit the local community.