More than 1,500 flee clashes in western Colombia
BOGOTA, Colombia, March 30 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has sent staff and backup aid to parts of western Colombia amid reports that intensified fighting has displaced more than 1,500 people in the last two weeks.
Over the weekend, UNHCR staff travelled to the Chocó region of north-western Colombia and confirmed that heavy fighting between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries had driven 556 indigenous Embera people from their homes in Egoróquera, Unión Baquiaza and La Playita to seek safety in Boca de Opagadó and Puerto Antioquia.
Irregular combatants had occupied their homes along the Opogado and Napipi rivers and taken their food, said the displaced people, who consisted mostly of women, children and the elderly. They need clean water, sanitation and medical assistance urgently.
"The displacement comes nearly two years after the massacre of 119 people sheltering in a church in Bojayá in this same area, and puts Bojayá again at the epicentre of a growing humanitarian crisis," cautioned UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday.
Elsewhere along the Napipi river, armed clashes have forced a separate group of 675 people from the indigenous communities of Union Cuití and Hoja Blanca to flee to Loma de Bojayá, where the government's Social Solidarity Network has sent food from Quibdó, the largest town in the region.
UNHCR and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have sent a follow-up mission to Opogado and Loma de Bojayá at the request of the communities.
Since February, fighting between guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) has intensified in this area of north-western Colombia, close to the border with Panama. The escalating conflict has caused the mostly indigenous and Afro-African population to flee repeatedly along the Opogado, Napipi and other tributaries of the Atrato river.
For months, UNHCR and human rights organisations in Colombia and elsewhere have been drawing attention to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in this region, considered the poorest in Colombia. After visiting the area in January, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, made a plea for urgent action to the Colombian authorities and the international community.
The refugee agency supports indigenous and Afro-Colombian organisations through training, documentation campaigns and funding for community initiatives.
Meanwhile, in south-western Colombia, hundreds of Colombians have crossed the border with Ecuador after fleeing their homes in Cristo Rey, Nariño province, which has seen much fighting between the Colombian army and FARC guerrillas in recent weeks.
For the second time in less than a week, between 350 and 500 Colombians arrived in the Ecuadorian border town of Tufiño on March 24, but returned to Colombia the next morning once the situation in their hometown was reported to be calm. A similar movement took place on March 21.
During their brief stay in Ecuador, most of the Colombians were lodged in the local sports stadium, while some stayed with family or friends. They received basic humanitarian and health assistance from the local authorities. Most of them subsequently went back to Colombia, but a few stayed behind in Ecuador, including two who received medical assistance from the Ecuadorian Red Cross.
The Ecuadorian Refugee Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNHCR have prepared and delivered humanitarian kits in case of future movements. These kits, which include mattresses, blankets, a stove and kitchen sets for cooking, are being kept in the local Catholic church in Tulcan and Tufiño.
"In the last few weeks, the media has reported fighting between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian Army in the southern provinces of Nariño and Putumayo, as well as efforts to reinforce security at the border," noted UNHCR's Janowski. "We remind all governments that any measures to reinforce border security should not contravene their international obligations to ensure the right to claim asylum."
Colombia's civil war has lasted more than four decades and is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. UNHCR estimates that there are 38,500 Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in neighbouring countries while unofficial estimates put the total number of internally displaced people since 1985 at three million.