UNHCR preparing for possible large-scale displacement in Colombia
CARACAS, Feb. 26 (UNHCR) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is stepping up preparations in Colombia and the border regions of neighbouring countries in case the upsurge in the conflict between guerrillas and government troops sparks a new large-scale displacement of civilians.
The refugee agency reported Tuesday that to date no large cross-border movements have been reported into Ecuador, Venezuela or Panama since the peace talks between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas broke down and President Andres Pastrana sent troops last week into a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland that he ceded to the rebels in 1998 in an effort to instigate peace negotiations.
UNHCR has been actively coordinating with other organizations inside Colombia to monitor developments closely, activate contingency plans, and ensure a coordinated humanitarian response in the event of a massive new displacement inside the country. Some two million people have been displaced in Colombia and 30,000 killed over the course of the 38-year-old conflict.
The chairman of UNHCR's Executive Committee, Ambassador Johan Molander of Sweden, is currently visiting Colombia to gain a first-hand perspective on the humanitarian situation in the country.
In neighbouring Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama, UNHCR is beefing up its border monitoring and communications with partner organizations and officials in the border zones. A possible reception centre for refugees has been identified in Ecuador's Esmeraldas Province, which borders on Nariño Province in Colombia.
In addition, UNHCR field staff met with the governors of two other Ecuadorian border provinces, Carchi and Imbabura, who pledged their support for UNHCR's efforts to handle any mass movement of people. Ecuador's Ministries of Defense, External Relations and Interior have announced that they will take urgent steps to assist persons displaced by the conflict in Colombia.
In Panama, UNHCR is in permanent contact with the National Refugee Office and the Vicarage of Darién province, which borders Colombia. No movements across the border have been reported and the situation around the border towns of Yaviza, El Real and Boca Cupe is reported to be calm.
In Venezuela, UNHCR is coordinating with the Venezuelan Red Cross, the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF and Venezuelan civilian and military authorities in order to strengthen monitoring and reception capacity in the border areas.
UNHCR's field office in the border town of San Cristobal has been in contact with the Venezuelan Armed Forces at the border and conducted a refugee training session earlier this month to highlight refugee law and emergency preparedness. Efforts are also under way to intensify border monitoring.