Assistant High Commissioner expresses solidarity with Colombia's internally displaced
BOGOTA, Colombia, Jan. 27 (UNHCR) - UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane has pledged the agency's continuing support for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Colombia and said he would urge the country's leadership to do all it can to restore their basic rights.
Morjane made the comments during the first leg of a week-long mission to Colombia and Ecuador. More than 1 million displaced people were registered by the Colombian government between 2000 and 2003, while unofficial estimates put the total number of displaced since 1985 at 3 million. Last year, the government registered more than 172,000 new displaced persons.
In a two-day visit to the province of Chocó, in western Colombia, Morjane saw the devastating impact of internal displacement and blockades by armed groups on thousands of Colombian civilians in the area. Chocó is one of the poorest and most isolated regions of the country.
On Sunday, Morjane visited the town of Bellavista (Bojayá), where 119 civilians died in May 2002 after a missile hit the church where they were sheltering during a firefight between irregular armed groups in the town. He visited the church, which still bears the scars of the attack, and then walked the streets of the town to talk with local residents. He was accompanied by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia, Alfredo Witschi-Cestari, UNHCR's Director for the Americas, Hope Hanlan, and UNHCR Colombia Representative Francisco Galindo.
Morjane met with Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders, whose communities together make up 95 percent of the population in rural areas of this part of Colombia. He said the meetings underscored the ethnic dimension of internal displacement in Colombia.
On Monday, Morjane visited the town of Tangui, one of several communities suffering the effects of a blockade by armed groups along the Atrato River in north-western Colombia. At the inauguration of a UNHCR-funded community centre, Morjane condemned such blockades as "a very serious transgression of International humanitarian law and human rights, which all armed groups should cease ... immediately."
Community leaders expressed frustration over what they felt was neglect by the central government, and complained that they were unable to enjoy their full range of rights as Colombian citizens.
"UNHCR's presence shows our support to the peaceful resistance of these communities," Morjane said later, pledging that the UN refugee agency will "continue to assist them in any way we can to allow them to improve their organization in order to defend their rights."
The Assistant High Commissioner said he would share his impressions along with the messages he received from the communities with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and other government officials when he meets them today. He was also expected to emphasise that internal displacement is a violation of an individual's fundamental rights, and affirmative action by the state is required to restore those rights.
"For UNHCR, a person ceases to be internally displaced not with the passage of time, but when he or she has regained these rights," Morjane said.
He also called on the government, non-governmental organisations and those helping the internally displaced to continue supporting the U.N. Humanitarian Alliance formed last year to improve coordination of the humanitarian effort for Colombia's displaced people. Morjane said he will continue to advocate on behalf of Colombia's displaced and vulnerable populations through his contacts with concerned governments and relevant U.N. partners, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen. Stavenhagen is expected to visit Colombia later this year.
Morjane is scheduled to travel to Ecuador on Wednesday for a 3½-day visit. In the last three years, nearly 21,000 Colombians have applied for refugee status in Ecuador. In 2003 alone, Ecuador received some 11,000 applications for refugee status from Colombian citizens.