Colombia: New UNHCR office to help deal with crisis
Today, UNHCR is inaugurating a new field office in Colombia, in the northern city of Barranquilla, to deal with the humanitarian crisis in five provinces (departments) on the country's Atlantic Coast. The office will cover the departments of Magdalena, Sucre, Guajira, Atlántico, and the North of the department of Bolívar. Three of these - Atlántico, Bolívar and Sucre - are considered among the poorest regions of the country.
The region covered by the new office saw the expulsion of around one quarter of the overall number of registered internally displaced persons in the country last year, according to official figures of the Social Solidarity Network, the government body in charge of policy on internally displaced people.
UNHCR's presence in the area will help bring more government and civil society attention to the displacement of Colombian citizens escaping from places where their lives are in danger due to the internal conflict. Of particular concern for the office are two areas - the Montes de María, which straddle the border between Sucre and Bolívar, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the department of Magdalena - where the conflict remains acute. Displacement within urban areas has also been reported in some big cities in the region, mainly Barranquilla and Cartagena.
Among the office's biggest concerns is the protection of some of the most threatened indigenous peoples in Colombia, who are surrounded by conflict in the Sierra Nevada. Nearly 40,000 members of six indigenous peoples live in the area of the Sierra Nevada. Many of them have already been victims of the conflict. It is necessary to protect the lives and rights of these peoples. Protection of women, children and youth is also a major priority, as these groups are severely affected by the conflict yet there are not enough initiatives to deal with their specific problems.
Of the nearly 266,700 Colombian citizens who obtained a certificate as internally displaced people from the Social Solidarity Network in 2002, some 63,700 had to leave their homes on the Caribbean Coast. Many of them sought refuge in cities within the same region. However, as not all people fleeing the conflict register as internally displaced people, the actual number of displaced could be much higher. Estimates of the total number of internally displaced in Colombia range from over 950,000 to more than 2 million.
The new Barranquilla office brings the number of UNHCR offices throughout Colombia to seven. In addition to its branch office in Bogota, UNHCR has existing field offices in Puerto Asís, Barrancabermeja, Apartadó and now Barranquilla, plus two satellite offices in Pasto and Quibdó.