Deteriorating security in Colombia's Nariño area concerns UNHCR
POLICARPA, Colombia, May 30 (UNHCR) - The refugee agency is extremely concerned about the security situation in the Colombian department of Nariño, which has seen a marked increase in violence in the past two weeks. The unrest is centered on the municipality of Policarpa, a mountainous region in the north of the department.
By Saturday, 15 bodies had arrived in Policarpa from surrounding villages. Five of them were civilians killed during fighting between irregular armed groups in the neighbouring village of Madrigal on Friday. The other 10 had been murdered.
"Although no one has claimed responsibility, the manner of their killing was consistent with murders committed by irregular armed groups. There are credible reports of several other deaths and disappearances," UNHCR's chief spokesman Ron Redmond told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday.
UNHCR is also alarmed that new irregular armed groups appear to be forming in the area.
"In this extremely tense environment we reluctantly agreed to accompany, along with other UN agencies, the Ombudsman's office and the Norwegian Refugee Council, the return to the Policarpa region on Friday of more than 2,200 displaced people," Redmond said.
The displaced were part of a group which arrived in Pasto, the capital of Nariño, in mid-May at the end of a protest march during which they met with physical violence. Later, they were warned by an irregular armed group that if they returned home they would be killed.
Fears grew when reports starting reaching Pasto that those trying to make their way back home were being stopped and detained along the way by irregular armed groups. It also appeared that these illegal groups were targeting young men without identification documents.
"UNHCR strongly urged representatives of the displaced in Pasto to postpone their return because of the total lack of security in their home communities," said Redmond. "The displaced people nevertheless insisted that they wanted to return home without delay, even if they had to go it alone."
As undocumented seemed to be at greater risk, UNHCR proposed organising an emergency registration campaign jointly with the Colombian Registry's Office.
The displaced were undeterred about returning and urgently requested UNHCR and other international organisations accompany them to avoid retaliation by irregular armed groups.
"Faced with the difficult choice of having to accompany their return in potentially dangerous conditions or leaving more than 2,200 people completely without protection, UNHCR agreed to help," said Redmond.
On Friday, a convoy of more than 100 vehicles - small vans, trucks and buses - left Pasto early in the morning to carry the displaced people back to the Policarpa region.
Although the return was initially arranged for two destinations - the villages of Sanchez and Santa Rosa - the convoy could only reach Sanchez on Friday because the road to Santa Rosa was cut off by heavy combat between irregular armed groups. As a result, some 70 people had to wait overnight for the fighting to cease. They reached Santa Rosa on Saturday.
While in Pasto, the group was sheltered in two buildings provided by local authorities. UNHCR coordinated the emergency response with the Governor's office and the mayor of Pasto, as well as with the church, NGOs and other UN agencies. We also provided emergency funds and 1,500 blankets to complement the assistance delivered by others.
"UNHCR remains extremely concerned about the medium- and long-term protection of those who have returned to northern Nariño. The refugee agency will send missions this week to both Sanchez and Santa Rosa and hope to be able to put in place with other organizations a programme enabling a regular presence in the area," Redmond said.
The department of Nariño, in the south-west of Colombia and bordering with Ecuador, is one of the country's least developed regions. In the past three years, forced displacement has been on the increase, with some 7,000 cases already in the first five months of this year.
By Marie-Hélène Verney in Policarpa, Colombia