Colombia: thousands fleeing in border regions
Increased fighting between leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia's border regions is causing thousands of people, mostly women and children, to flee their homes. Most remain internally displaced, but some are forced to look for safety in neighbouring countries.
In the past three months, the number of civilians escaping insecurity in Colombia and crossing the border into Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama has been steadily growing as armed clashes intensify in the Colombian border regions of Norte de Santander, Nariño and Chocó. The number of Colombians applying for asylum at the Venezuelan border in the first three months of 2002 (387 cases), for example, has already surpassed the total number of asylum applications filed in the whole of Venezuela during the last two years (75 in 2000 and 311 in 2001). In Ecuador, similarly, the number of persons (mostly Colombians) receiving refugee status during the first three and a half months of 2002 (416) is already nearing the total number for the whole of last year (443). UNHCR expects these trends to continue during 2002.
UNHCR estimates that the real number of persons of concern in the region could be considerably higher than that registered, due to the difficulties of monitoring remote land borders and problems of access to institutional protection mechanisms. In Panama's Darién region, for example, Colombians fleeing violence continue to arrive. Many faced considerable danger in remote and inhospitable jungle areas. Earlier this week, Panama's National Office for Refugee Affairs (ONPAR) confirmed that at least 12 people (mainly women and children) had arrived by boat to the border town of Jaqué, escaping armed clashes near the Colombian town of Juradó, in Chocó Province. Another, smaller group, is said to have stayed in the indigenous village of Cocalito closer to the border. More Juradó villagers are thought to be heading toward Panama on foot. ONPAR is working with UNHCR partners, the police and immigration authorities to prepare for any new arrivals. Over the last few months, Panama has seen a steady trickle of refugees enter amid renewed fighting in Colombia. The number of persons of concern registered by UNHCR in Panama (including urban refugees, asylum seekers and persons under Humanitarian Protection) is currently 1,626.
In addition, in the first three months of 2002 more than 3,200 Colombians have sought asylum outside the immediate region in 24 European countries, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, over 12,800 Colombians sought asylum in 28 mostly industrialized countries. Another 5,000 Colombians requested refugee status in Costa Rica last year, compared with 1,450 in 2000 and just 88 the year before. The trend is continuing, with over 1,150 new applications filed during the first three months of this year.
In all, the conflict in Colombia has uprooted an estimated 2 million people over the past 40 years.