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Some 2,000 Colombians flee irregular armed groups in Arauca

Briefing notes

Some 2,000 Colombians flee irregular armed groups in Arauca

22 January 2008

Some 2,000 people have fled the countryside to take refuge in cities and villages after receiving threats from irregular armed groups in the north-eastern Colombian region of Arauca.

Around half are in the city of Saravena, either staying with friends and families or in public buildings like schools and colleges. The other 1,000 have arrived in the cities of Tame, Arauquita, Fortul and the departmental capital Arauca, as well as smaller villages.

Local authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross are distributing emergency humanitarian assistance. The local authorities have reacted quickly but say the scope of the displacement is overwhelming their capacity and have requested regional and national help.

Many children are among the displaced and there are concerns, especially in Saravena, that the health situation could deteriorate with so many people arriving in the past two weeks. The school year has just started in Colombia and the children risk missing out on their education unless provisions are made very rapidly. Under Colombian law, the State must guarantee access to education for every displaced child.

The UNHCR team on the ground says in some parts of the department, and especially around the town of Tame, the countryside is almost empty. People began fleeing to the cities during the second week of January after irregular armed groups issued threats to those in the countryside. The government and several NGOs report the killing of several community leaders since the start of the year.

The violence is also affecting two local indigenous groups, the Guahibos and the Siriri-Catleya. Around 150 Guahibos have fled their territory to take refuge in Tame, while some 45 families (around 300 people) of the Siriri-Catleya group have arrived in the village of Betoyes. Under Colombian and international principles, special efforts should be made to protect indigenous groups from displacement because they have very strong links to the land, on which their cultural survival depends.

A UNHCR team has been in Arauca since last week monitoring the situation and preparing for the official opening of a field office next month. UNHCR has 12 offices in Colombia, where it works to support the State's efforts to protect and assist the displaced population.

Arauca is located in the north-east of Colombia, along the border with Venezuela, and is one of the regions most affected by Colombia's internal armed conflict. Oil extraction provides the main source of revenue in the area, although most people live from farming and agricultural work.