April 10th, 2007 08:45 EST
Colombia Thousands Flee Fighting
As thousands have fled their homes in the NariÃ±o region in southern Colombia to escape fighting between the Government and rebel forces, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today called for the protection of civilians and urged authorities to provide assistance to those affected.
In the past two weeks, over 6,000 people have taken refuge in El Charco and La Tola, two small towns north of NariÃ±o, according to UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond.
Local officials have opened schools and other public buildings to shelter the newly displaced, but despite the efforts of authorities, the church and international organizations, there is a shortage of clear water and basic health supplies. In El Charco, only one out of every 30 people who arrived in the town last week has a mattress to sleep on.
The conflict in NariÃ±o has been intense for over a year, and UNHCR is extremely worried that civilians continue to suffer in large numbers, " Mr. Redmond told reporters in Geneva.
We will send a mission this week to the worst-affected areas, " he added. But the presence of humanitarian staff cannot in itself guarantee security and provide solutions to the thousands of people at risk. "
Approximately 3,000 displaced were in El Charco as of yesterday, but the figures are constantly changing. In spite of uncertain security conditions, several hundred families returned to their homes, while an additional 300 arrived in the town who had been caught behind the front lines of the fighting for several days. There are reported hundreds more trapped by combat facing dwindling food supplies.
UNHCR is extremely concerned for the safety of both those who have returned home as well as those attempting to flee the fighting.
The security conditions continue to deteriorate in the rest of the NariÃ±o region, as new irregular armed groups have emerged and deployed. Dozens of small villages are emptying in the mountainous regions around the Policarpa municipality, and there have been two instances of mass crossings of the displaced across the border into Ecuador.
Colombia has the largest population of concern to UNHCR with some three million people uprooted by more than 40 years of fighting between the Government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) represent some 8 per cent of the total population of over 40 million.
Last month, High Commissioner Ant"nio Guterres visited the country last month, and met with President "lvaro Uribe. He also chaired a conference in Bogota, the capital, to draw attention to the humanitarian consequences of displacement and encourage the full implementation of the law so that all displaced people have equal access to their rights.