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UNHCR official says Colombia can ease humanitarian tragedy with help


UNHCR official says Colombia can ease humanitarian tragedy with help

UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Judy Cheng-Hopkins said she was worried about the numbers of Colombian refugees and internally displaced people in the country. But the official, wrapping up a week-long tour of Colombia and Ecuador, believed the country could alleviate the problem with international help.
13 June 2006
UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins (left) gets a warm welcome at an income generation project for displaced people in the Colombian department of Nariño.

BOGOTA, Colombia, June 13 (UNHCR) - UNHCR is worried about the numbers of Colombians who have fled overseas or become internally displaced, but the refugee agency believes the Latin American nation can ease its "humanitarian tragedy" with international help, a top UNHCR official said here.

Before wrapping up a four-day visit late Monday, Assistant High Commissioner Judy Cheng-Hopkins met Foreign Ministry officials and thanked the government for its stepped-up efforts to help Colombia's more than 2.5 million displaced people. She also noted the significant increase in budget announced at the end of last year for assisting the internally displaced.

Cheng-Hopkins, who made a link between internal displacement and refugee outflows of hundreds of thousands of people to neighbouring countries, said she was worried that more people leave their homes, jobs and communities every year to flee the violence of Colombia's 42-year-old conflict. "These numbers are extremely worrying," Cheng-Hopkins said, "especially because they show no sign of abating."

But the UN official believed the country could turn the corner. "Colombia is a middle-income country, with strong state institutions. It cannot be compared to some of the failed or very weak states where UNHCR works elsewhere in the world. With the help of the international community, Colombia has the means to get out of this humanitarian tragedy that has gone on for so long," she said.

She also highlighted the difficulties for UNHCR of providing protection in a vast country where the conflict has spread out to many departments and is at its worst in remote rural locations.

Cheng-Hopkins, who called last week in neighbouring Ecuador for more international attention to be paid to the humanitarian impact of the Colombian conflict on the whole region, also visited displaced people in the volatile department of Nariño in south-west Colombia. Since the start of the year, more than 7,000 people have fled their homes to escape violence in the area.

"Three times we have had to flee and leave everything behind," a woman called Gloria told the Assistant High Commissioner. "It all started because my eldest son refused to join one of the irregular armed groups, and since then the whole family is under death threat. They killed one of my sons and have said everyone else will die. For this reason we cannot all live together in one place: we have had to split into small groups, one son here, another there."

Gloria is now heading an association of displaced people running a small farm in Nariño. It is part of a UNHCR-backed project that aims to provide displaced people with the means to generate an income.

"Income-generating projects that utilize the farming skills of displaced people are especially useful," Cheng-Hopkins said. "But our projects are not only about income generation. All UNHCR projects in Colombia are first and foremost about bringing protection and they all have a psycho-social dimension: so many displaced people have been broken by the tragedies they have gone through that they have lost hope. Being part of a project provides them not just with a livelihood, but also with a reason for living."

She also visited a housing project near Cartagena, on Colombia's Atlantic coast, and went to Soacha, a suburb of Bogota with a large population of displaced people. Everywhere she visited, she said, she was shocked at the extreme brutality of the stories she heard.

But Cheng-Hopkins, who began her overseas tour on June 6 in Ecuador, reiterated UNHCR's determination to help. "Even though Colombia has good, strong laws to protect displaced people, these people are too lost to even know that they have rights. This is where UNHCR comes in, to help these people - who have gone through so much - recover the rights they have lost."

Colombia is now the country with the largest population of concern to UNHCR in the world. The agency has been working on behalf of displaced people in the country since the late 1990s.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Bogota, Colombia