More families flee unrest near Colombias border with Panama UN refugee agency

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said that increasing numbers of families are fleeing unrest near Colombia’s border with Panama.Citing the example of one victim of stepped up violence in northern Colombia, the agency profiled “Maria,” a 22-year-old who fled her home village with her three children after her husband was killed by members of an irregular armed group. They had been living in Arquía Limón, a tiny community right on the jungle-covered border with Panama. Like other border regions in Colombia, Chocó is unstable – irregular armed groups vie for control of territory and the jungle’s rich natural resources, UNHCR said. Communities living on rivers cutting through the jungle are subject to frequent blockades, threats, forced recruitment and killings – sometimes targeted and sometimes indiscriminate. No one knows why Maria’s husband and the three other men died in Arquía Limón last month, but the UN refugee agency said the impact of the killings was immediate: within hours, the community’s 23 families had fled. In all, UNHCR estimates that more than 500 people have arrived in Unguía since late July from Arquía Limón and surrounding communities. Further south on the Atrato River, the small town of Ríosucio has also seen a growing number of families arrive in recent weeks after fleeing stepped up violence further up the river. Local authorities tell UNHCR staff that many families are so terrified they will not even come to register as displaced because they do not want their names to appear on a list. Those who do speak say that up to 14 plantation workers were killed by members of an irregular armed group in Taparali in late July, according to UNHCR, which reported that their surviving colleagues are too scared to go back to work. As well as displacement, the violence is causing serious economic problems for people who are among the poorest in the country. Many of those displaced in Ríosucio are of Afro-Colombian origin and UNHCR said there is growing concern about the fate of indigenous communities along the river. Throughout Colombia, ethnic minorities are suffering disproportionately from the conflict and are forced to leave their homes in large numbers. There are an estimated 2.5 million internally displaced people in Colombia – the largest population of concern to UNHCR in any country in the world. The refugee agency has been working on behalf of displaced people in Colombia since the late 1990s to find durable solutions for those already displaced, guarantee the protection of the rights of displaced people and avoid new forced displacement. read more