BOGOTA – Strife-torn Colombia is the scene of the worst humanitarian tragedy in Latin America with nearly 400,000 refugees and 4 million people internally displaced, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
The agency’s spokeswoman for the Andean Region, Francesca Fontanini, confirmed those figures to Efe, adding that the main recipient nations for Colombians fleeing violence in their homeland are Ecuador, with almost 56,000, the United States, 25,000; and Costa Rica, 12,000.
“These are official figures, but it’s estimated that there are many more,” Fontanini said in an interview with Efe coinciding with Wednesday’s commemoration of World Refugee Day.
The U.N. agency, known by the initials UNHCR, puts the number of Colombians forced to abandon their country due to violence and threats at more than 390,000.
That figure does not include an estimated 60,000 asylum seekers.
The spokeswoman also referred to “nearly 4 million” people whom the government recognizes as internally displaced, a figure some non-governmental organizations such as the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement put at 5 million.
That level of internal displacement means Colombia is suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises along with Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries, Fontanini said.
The UNHCR’s figures indicate that some 115,000 Colombians may have settled in Ecuador, most of them clandestine refugees, meaning between 1,300-1,500 people are forced to flee to that neighboring country every month.
Fontanini also pointed to a “new phenomenon” in which Colombians no longer stay on the other side of the border but rather seek refuge in the cities and are arriving in large numbers in Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca, which have received 60 percent of the refugees.
They are fleeing to urban centers due to a “lack of confidence that the situation in their country will improve or because they’ve suffered such a traumatic experience that they don’t want to return,” the U.N. official said.
Urban areas also offer greater employment opportunities, whereas border zones are notoriously unsafe due to the significant presence of illegal armed groups.
The same situation prevails in Venezuela, where in addition to the 3,000 legal Colombian refugees the number of clandestine refugees could total more than 150,000, according to figures provided to Efe by the UNHCR office in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira.
And the lack of border control is even worse in Panama – which has 1,200 refugees, according to official figures – because of the thick swampland and forest that separates the two countries.
Some 850 Colombians – many of them Indians – have been stranded for more than 10 years in the jungle-shrouded Darien region after fleeing massacres in the northwestern province of Choco, although they were awarded refugee status in recent months.
“Finally they’ll be able to move around legally in Panama, they’ll have access to health care and education,” Fontanini said, calling that humanitarian action by the Panamanian government “a great step.”
The flood of refugees and forcibly displaced people shows no sign of abating, according to the UNHCR, which cites on its Web site the “proliferation of illegal armed actors, many closely linked to illicit drug trafficking and organized crime” despite the “demobilization of paramilitary groups” in recent years.
In addition to those displaced by fighting between the army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group, or among rival drug gangs, many rural Colombians have been turned into refugees by thugs working for business interests seeking control of land or resources. EFE