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Colombia: UNHCR concerned for security situation in Nariño

Briefing notes

Colombia: UNHCR concerned for security situation in Nariño

30 May 2006

UNHCR is extremely concerned about the security situation in the Colombian department of Nariño, which has seen a marked increase in violence in the past two weeks. The unrest is centered on the municipality of Policarpa, a mountainous region in the north of the department.

By Saturday, 15 bodies had arrived in Policarpa from surrounding villages. Five of them were civilians killed during fighting between irregular armed groups in the neighbouring village of Madrigal on Friday. The other 10 had been murdered. Although no one has claimed responsibility, the manner of their killing was consistent with murders committed by irregular armed groups. There are credible reports of several other deaths and disappearances. UNHCR is also alarmed that new irregular armed groups appear to be forming in the area.

In this extremely tense environment, UNHCR reluctantly agreed to accompany, along with other UN agencies, the Ombudsman's office and the Norwegian Refugee Council, the return to the Policarpa region on Friday of more than 2,200 displaced people. They were part of a group which arrived in Pasto, the capital of Nariño, in mid-May at the end of a protest march during which they met with physical violence. Later, they were warned by an irregular armed group that if they returned home they would be killed. UNHCR had strongly urged representatives of the displaced to postpone their return because of the total lack of security in their home communities. UNHCR was especially worried about reports that irregular armed groups had intercepted people without documents who had tried to make their own way home from Pasto earlier in the week.

The displaced people nevertheless insisted that they wanted to return home without delay, even if they had to go alone. However, they urgently requested that UNHCR and other international organizations accompany them to avoid retaliation by irregular armed groups. Faced with the difficult choice of having to accompany their return in potentially dangerous conditions or leaving more than 2,200 people completely without protection, UNHCR agreed to help, and on Friday a convoy of some 100 vehicles carrying more than 2,200 people went back to the Policarpa region.

Although the return was initially arranged for two destinations - the villages of Sánchez and Santa Rosa - the convoy could only reach Sánchez on Friday because the road to Santa Rosa was cut off by heavy combat between irregular armed groups. As a result, some 70 people had to wait overnight for the fighting to cease. They reached Santa Rosa on Saturday.

While in Pasto, the group was sheltered in two buildings provided by local authorities. UNHCR coordinated the emergency response with the governor's office and the mayor of Pasto, as well as with the church, NGOs and other UN agencies. We also provided emergency funds and 1,500 blankets to complement the assistance delivered by others.

UNHCR remains extremely concerned about the medium- and long-term protection of those who have returned to northern Nariño. We will send missions this week to both Sánchez and Santa Rosa and hope to be able to put in place with other organizations a programme enabling a regular presence in the area. Nevertheless, the presence of humanitarian staff will not in itself be enough to guarantee the security of thousands of people at risk in the region.