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Colombia: UNHCR concern on recruitment of refugee children

Briefing notes

Colombia: UNHCR concern on recruitment of refugee children

21 May 2002

UNHCR is extremely concerned about refugee children being recruited to fight in Colombia. UNHCR has received reports that illegal armed groups from Colombia have been recruiting Colombian boys under 18 in the border areas of Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. 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. Moreover, 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.

In a separate development, UNHCR's partners in Panama have confirmed the arrival of a group of 64 Colombian civilians in the remote Punusa area of the Darién jungle, which straddles the border between Colombia and Panama. The group, which includes 36 children, fled as a result of fighting in the north-western Urabá region of Colombia at the beginning of May, before the recent massacre at Bojayá made international news. A total of 117 people, including 45 children, were killed in an attack on a church in Bojayá, in the Urabá region. Since then, fighting between leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in north-western Colombia has resulted in hundreds of casualties.

In Colombia itself, UNHCR is helping the local authorities in Urabá co-ordinate the humanitarian response to the crisis. A UNHCR team has been present in the region since 9 May, in Quibdó and Vigía del Fuerte, registering and aiding in the delivery of relief assistance to the displaced people from Bojayá.

In the last few months and, particularly since the end of the peace process, thousands of people have been displaced inside Colombia or have moved to other countries in the region. UNHCR believes that there is an urgent need to strengthen the registration and protection mechanisms in the border areas of all the countries of the region in order to guarantee the right of asylum to the victims of the conflict in Colombia.