UN agency concerned fighting in Colombia forcing civilians to neighbouring countries

As fighting between various groups continues in Colombia, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern that more civilians would forced to flee to neighbouring countries.A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told journalists in Geneva there has been heavy fighting in recent months in some provinces bordering Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.“Although displacement in border areas remains mostly internal, the intensification of the armed conflict in the bordering departments of Colombia has provoked an increase in cross-border movements, particularly towards Ecuador,” Kris Janowski said.Last month some 1,200 persons requested asylum in Ecuador, the highest monthly figure registered since UNHCR opened its office in the country in January 2000, the spokesman said. Most asylum seekers in Ecuador told the agency they had been forced to flee Colombia due to fighting between regular forces and guerrillas, as well as between paramilitaries and guerrillas, or after receiving threats from one or more of the irregular armed groups. Some also expressed fear of being forcibly recruited by these groups.Meanwhile border areas in Venezuela have become increasingly affected by the worsening of the armed conflict in the Colombian provinces of Arauca, Cesar and Norte de Santander, according to Mr. Janowski. Attacks and selective killings attributed to irregular armed groups from Colombia are on the increase in Venezuelan cities such as San Antonio de Tachira, Santa Ana, Ureña and other border locations. The Venezuelan Government has responded to this situation by reinforcing security safeguards to prevent irregular groups from gaining admission to its territory.“Although UNHCR endorses all efforts to strengthen border security in the region, [the agency] is concerned that bona fide asylum seekers may be victimized as a result and that carefully built refugee protection standards may be eroded,” Mr. Janowski said. “Any discussion of security safeguards should start from the assumption that most asylum seekers are themselves escaping persecution and violence, and are not themselves the perpetrators of such acts.”