Colombia: UNHCR opens third field office
UNHCR has opened its third field office in Colombia, this one in the southern department of Putumayo near the border with Ecuador. The official opening Friday of the Putumayo office, in the town of Puerto Asís, completes a yearlong process of establishing a UNHCR field presence in the key displacement areas of Colombia.
Under a 1999 agreement with the Bogota government, UNHCR's activities in Colombia are aimed at strengthening the local capacity to deal with the country's huge population of internally displaced people - now estimated at more than 1.1 million. Nearly 600,000 Colombians are estimated to have been uprooted in the past two years alone, a worrisome trend that is continuing in places like Putumayo where profits from the drug trade are fuelling a bloody conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces and government troops.
Following the establishment of its office in Bogota in June 1998 at the invitation of the government, UNHCR announced plans for three field offices which are also close to the borders with Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. The first of the three field offices opened in November 1999 in the north-eastern city of Barrancabermeja, an oil port on the Magdalena River near Venezuela. The second opened earlier this year in Apartadó, in the northern region of Urabá near the border with Panama.
The location of the new Putumayo office, near the border with Ecuador, was announced in November 1999. Putumayo, one of Colombia's major coca-producing regions, has long been affected by conflict and forced displacement, although there is little accurate information on actual numbers. A recent example occurred in late June, when a UNHCR team on mission to Putumayo reported the arrival of more than 700 internally displaced people in the town of La Hormiga. Authorities in La Hormiga required considerable assistance in caring for the IDPs, who said they came from the nearby town of El Placer after being told by leftist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels to evacuate the area. Fighting between FARC and right-wing paramilitaries erupted in the area a few days later. Colombian officials acknowledge that an expected anti-drug offensive in the Putumayo region could lead to further displacement in the area.
The programme in Colombia, with a budget this year of some $2 million, includes providing technical and financial support to the government and NGOs for humanitarian assistance for the internally displaced; advising the military and police on their obligation to provide security for IDPs; advice on contingency planning and early warning for emergencies; and identifying lasting solutions for the victims.
UNHCR is also working in the surrounding countries to help strengthen asylum procedures. This includes advice to Venezuela's legislative assembly for a refugee law which will be incorporated into a new constitution. In Ecuador, where there have been an estimated 3,000 new arrivals from Colombia in the last few months, UNHCR recently opened a liaison office and is helping the government and local agencies identify possible sites for refugee reception centres in case of a large influx. In Panama, UNHCR has provided assistance to several hundred Colombians who arrived in the Pacific coastal village of Jacque after fleeing fighting in the Colombian town of Juradó in mid-December. UNHCR is also advising Panama on asylum legislation. Altogether, UNHCR is assisting about 1,000 Colombian refugees in Panama.