Venezuela appeals for UNHCR's aid in case of mass influx of Colombian refugees
BOGOTA, March 14 (UNHCR) - Following the collapse of peace talks between the Colombian government and the country's main rebel group, Venezuela has appealed for UNHCR's help in case of a mass displacement of people to that country. At the same time, asylum applications from Colombians to countries in the region continue to grow.
More than two million people have been displaced inside Colombia and more than 30,000 killed over the course of the 38-year-old conflict. Last year alone, more than 190,000 people were forced to leave their homes, according to government statistics.
Although the refugee agency has not detected any mass movement of refugees since talks between the Colombian government and rebels belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia broke down last month, neighbouring countries are going ahead with contingency plans to meet such a crisis.
Venezuela's defence minister, reflecting fears that as many as 10,000 Colombians may try to cross the frontier if fighting between government forces and the rebels intensifies, on Wednesday appealed for the agency's aid to handle any possible influx.
The minister, José Vincent Rangel, met with Maria Virginia Trimarco, UNHCR's regional representative in Caracas, and other officials to discuss practical details for a coordinated response. Under Venezuelan law, the army is responsible for leading relief efforts in case of a humanitarian crisis.
One hundred new asylum applications from Colombians were registered last week at the Venezuelan border, bringing to about 500 the number of registered Colombian asylum seekers. At the same time, 485 asylum applications were registered in Ecuador during the first two months of the year.
Although the number of Colombians crossing into neighbouring countries in search of protection has remained low since the collapse of the Colombian peace process, preparations in neighbouring countries are being stepped up in case of larger influxes.
In Ecuador, arrangements have been made for humanitarian assistance, including the refurbishment of reception centres and the provision of 2,000 food packets for distribution to refugees and local people. Registration teams are also being trained to improve the collection of data regarding Colombian refugees.
In Panama, where 763 Colombians, mostly women and children, have sought refuge, UNHCR's implementing partners have begun the distribution of school uniforms, shoes, pencils, pens, notebooks and stationery to some 800 Colombian and Panamanian schoolchildren in the country's southern Darién and Kuna Yala provinces.
In Costa Rica, 5,018 Colombians appealed for refugee status last year, compared with 1,450 in 2000 and just 88 the year before. The trend is continuing, with 750 cases filed during the first two months of the year, a slightly lower rate than the monthly average of 430 cases filed during 2001.