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Colombia: Thousands fleeing in Nariño region

Briefing notes

Colombia: Thousands fleeing in Nariño region

10 April 2007

Thousands of people are fleeing their homes to escape fighting and generalized insecurity in the Nariño region of southern Colombia. Over the past two weeks, more than 6,000 people took refuge in the small towns of El Charco and La Tola, in the north of Nariño. Local authorities opened schools and other public places to house the displaced, who are fleeing fighting further to the south between the army and an irregular armed group.

Local authorities, the church and international organizations have joined their efforts to those of the government to provide food and medical attention. Despite their work, there is a shortage of clean water and basic health supplies. Only one out of every 30 persons who arrived in El Charco last week has a mattress to sleep on.

As of yesterday, there remained a total of 3,000 displaced in El Charco, but the figures are changing all the time. Over the weekend, several hundred families chose to return to their homes, despite uncertainties about security conditions. They returned in boats provided by the local authorities. The rivers are the only means of transportation in this part of the country.

At the same time, more people are still arriving from communities further downriver. Three hundred people reached El Charco on Sunday after being caught up for several days behind the front line. They said hundreds more are still stuck and that food supplies are getting low. UNHCR is extremely concerned about their safety, as well as for the protection of those people who returned to their communities along the Tapaje River at the weekend.

In the rest of Nariño, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. In the mountainous region around the municipality of Policarpa, dozens of small villages are emptying because residents fear more violence. Along the border with Ecuador in the south, conditions remain volatile, notably around La Victoria and Tallambi. Since the start of the year, there have been two instances of mass crossings into Ecuador, one of them from Tallambi on February 23 in which some 400 Colombians fled to Chical, Ecuador. The emergence and deployment of new irregular armed groups in several parts of the region contributes to the degradation of the situation.

The conflict in Nariño has been intense for over a year, and UNHCR is extremely worried that civilians continue to suffer in large numbers. We will send a mission this week to the worst-affected areas. But the presence of humanitarian staff cannot in itself guarantee security and provide solutions to the thousands of people at risk.

We are calling on all armed actors to respect the civilian population. We are also calling on the government to have contingency plans in place to provide medium and long-term protection as well as emergency assistance to the population in order to mitigate, to the extent possible, unnecessary suffering.