UNHCR concerned about hundreds displaced near Venezuela-Colombia border
EL CRUCE, Venezuela, April 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has requested the government of Venezuela to facilitate a humanitarian assessment mission to the north-west following reports that hundreds of people were displaced by armed clashes near the border with Colombia.
Over the last two weeks, there have been reports of armed clashes between Colombian guerrilla and paramilitaries in the border zone with Venezuela. These irregular armed groups also reportedly clashed with the Venezuelan army. Last weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared that he had ordered a bombing raid against suspected Colombian irregular forces inside Venezuelan territory.
Some 200 persons, including more than 90 children, fled the remote Rio de Oro area of north-western Venezuela when Colombian paramilitaries entered the zone, according to local authorities, human rights non-governmental agencies and media sources.
UNHCR staff spoke to Colombian and Venezuelan subsistence farmers in the town of El Cruce who said they had escaped from the violence. They confirmed that a number of families had walked from Rio de Oro and were hiding in the surrounding areas.
The refugee agency has also received unconfirmed reports that some 600 persons, including indigenous Bari people, had fled into the mountainous area near Rio de Oro.
"The worsening of the conflict in Colombia is aggravating a very complex security situation at the border," said Maria Virginia Trimarco, UNHCR's Regional Representative based in Caracas, Venezuela. "In order to be more effective, we need the practical application of the refugee law in Venezuela and the support of the authorities to facilitate an assessment mission to reach this population faster."
UNHCR has requested the Venezuelan authorities to provide all the necessary security guarantees for humanitarian staff to undertake an assessment mission to the area as soon as possible. The refugee agency and its partners are ready to assist the local authorities in attending to the displaced population's immediate needs for protection and humanitarian assistance.
The recent events signal a worrying escalation of the Colombian conflict and underscore the growing humanitarian impact on the countries neighbouring Colombia. UNHCR has urged all combatants to respect the rights of the civilian population. It has also appealed to all governments in the region to continue to abide by their international obligations and ensure the right to asylum.