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UNHCR opens new field office in eastern Colombia

Briefing notes

UNHCR opens new field office in eastern Colombia

19 February 2008

Tomorrow, Wednesday, we are opening a new field office in Arauca in eastern Colombia - a part of the country that has seen a sharp increase in forced displacement over the past three years.

More than 38,000 people are known to have been forced to flee from conflict and violence in the region, although the actual numbers could be much higher since under-registration, especially in rural areas, is an ongoing concern.

Some of those forced to move have fled to other parts of Colombia, others have crossed the border into neighbouring Venezuela. Many - some 23,000 - have stayed inside the department of Arauca, often moving from the countryside to the relative safety of the cities.

Arauca is largely rural and parts of the countryside have now emptied out, with small pueblos turning into ghost villages. Since the start of the year, there have been several cases of targeted killings of social leaders throughout the region. Ongoing fighting between irregular armed groups is also reported in the countryside.

Just last month, some 3,000 people fled from rural areas after receiving threats from one of the irregular armed groups. The infrastructure of Arauca's few small towns is poorly prepared to cope with such ongoing waves of forced displacement.

In the town of Saravena, the local authorities say that around 1,500 families have arrived in the city since the start of the year with 600 displaced children registered in school in the past month. The municipality is calling for help to cope with the pressure on public services.

UNHCR will work in Arauca to support the local and national authorities' response to the crisis, notably in the development of contingency plans for emergencies and long-term solutions to help integration. It will operate hand-in-hand with the displaced population and with communities at high risk of imminent displacement throughout the region.

The official opening ceremony will take place on Wednesday in the provincial capital, also named Arauca, with the participation of the national authorities and of representatives of the international community. It will bring to 12 the number of UNHCR offices inside Colombia.

One of UNHCR top priorities in Colombia for 2008 is to strengthen its presence and activities in the 50 municipalities worst hit by forced displacement as a result of the internal armed conflict. While forced displaced affects every part of the country, which counts between 2.3 to more than 3 million IDPs, some regions are especially at risk, notably in rural and border areas like Arauca.