UNHCR concerned about child soldiers in Colombia
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expressed concerns about refugee children being recruited to fight in Colombia after receiving reports that the country's illegal armed groups are recruiting Colombian boys under 18 years of age in the border areas of Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador.
"We fear that with the intensification of the conflict, the recruitment of children by armed groups from Colombia could increase, having serious consequences for the protection of all refugees and asylum seekers, particularly children," said UNHCR in a statement on Tuesday.
The statement added that "there is a serious danger that this practice, which violates international law and the rights of children, could add to the confusion between armed combatants fighting in Colombia and the innocent civilian victims of the conflict who are in need of protection".
Meanwhile, a group of 64 Colombian civilians, including 36 children, have arrived in the remote Punusa area of the Darién jungle, which straddles the border between Colombia and Panama. UNHCR's partners in Panama said these new refugees had fled the fighting in Colombia's north-western Urabá region at the beginning of May.
The Urabá region is also the scene of a recent massacre in Bojayá, where 117 people, including 48 children, were killed in an attack on a church. Since then, fighting between leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in north-western Colombia has resulted in hundreds of casualties.
UNHCR is helping the local authorities in Urabá to co-ordinate the humanitarian response to the crisis. Since May 9, a UNHCR team has been present in the region - in Quibdó and Vigía del Fuerte - registering and aiding in the delivery of relief assistance to the displaced people of Bojayá.
In the last few months, particularly since the collapse of the peace process, thousands of people have been displaced inside Colombia or have moved to neighbouring countries. UNHCR believes there is an urgent need to strengthen the registration and protection mechanisms in the border areas of all the countries in the region in order to guarantee the right of asylum for the victims of the Colombian conflict.
As many as 2 million people have been displaced within Colombia since 1985 as a result of fighting between left-wing rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and organised crime syndicates.