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Colombia: Hundreds fleeing fighting in Nariño department

Briefing notes

Colombia: Hundreds fleeing fighting in Nariño department

28 April 2006

Hundreds of people are fleeing heavy fighting between the army and one of Colombia's irregular armed groups in the south-western department of Nariño. Since last Friday, more than 1,400 people have left their homes in remote, mountainous settlements in northern Nariño to take refuge in the village of Sánchez. They say they fled because of air-to-ground fighting between army helicopters and members of an irregular armed group encamped in the mountains.

The situation in Sánchez itself is now getting under control after a very difficult first few days when local authorities struggled to find shelter, food and drinking water for the newcomers. UNHCR is in Sánchez to help the municipality deal with the crisis, especially in terms of providing protection. National social services and international organisations are now on the ground as well to supply emergency assistance.

The vast majority of the displaced - more than 90 percent - are members of the Afro-Colombian ethnic minority. They come from remote settlements where there is little or no state presence and many of them do not have any identification documents - a situation that could jeopardise their rights to social services they are entitled to as displaced people. As part of its national registration programme, UNHCR is planning to run an emergency documentation campaign in Sánchez next week.

Since the start of the year, more than 4,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Nariño. This number only covers cases of group displacement of more than 50 people moving at the same time. There are also reports of several other instances of smaller displacement, which are far more difficult to monitor. To add to this worrying trend, the security situation within the department is cause for increasing concern. In the past three weeks, nine people have been summarily executed - five of them in one day alone in the village of El Diviso, where masked gunmen shot three women and two men.

Four of the nine people murdered this month were indigenous, including a former local governor. A regional indigenous association, UNIPA (Unidad Indígena del Pueblo Awá), has strongly condemned the killings and expressed deep fears for the future in light of these recent developments.

Some 38,000 people have been registered by the government as forcibly displaced from Nariño since 1996 - most of them in the past five years when the humanitarian situation began to worsen in the department.

Nariño, to the south-west of the country and bordering Ecuador, is one of Colombia's poorest and least developed regions, with a population of about half a million people. State institutions are largely absent outside the main cities, while irregular armed groups are heavily present. Ethnic minorities make up a relatively large percentage of the population (8% indigenous and 18% Afro-Colombians) and are very badly affected by the conflict. This is the case all over Colombia, with a much higher incidence of forced displacement among ethnic minorities than in the rest of the population. Earlier this month, for example, more than 700 Wounaan indigenous people were forced to leave their homes in the north-western department of Chocó following the killings of two of their leaders by members of an irregular armed group.