The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has stepped up provision of emergency aid to the many thousands of Colombians affected by the country’s devastating floods. Heavy rain has caused severe problems across 28 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, damaging buildings, closing schools and displacing families from their homes. With over two million people affected, an estimated 55,000 Colombians needing new homes and the cost of repairing infrastructure put at around 5 billion dollars, President Juan Manuel Santos has declared the country to be facing the “worst natural catastrophe” in its history.
The northern and coastal provinces have been the worst affected, with many towns still under water and thousands of displaced residents living in makeshift shelters. Following an appeal by the Colombian government for international help, UNHCR began distributing aid two weeks ago, working with local and regional authorities and the Colombian Red Cross. Food supplies and items such as mattresses, hammocks, mosquito nets and blankets have been given out to families in Atlantico, Bolivar, Cordoba and La Guajira in the north, Santander and Norte de Santander in the East and Antioquia and Choco in the west. One worker for UNHCR, who had been taking aid to an area around Cantagallo south of the Bolivar province, explained “we found people isolated in the hills in places where the roads had been destroyed and their children were hungry”.
UNHCR is already active in Colombia to co-ordinate the work of humanitarian and support organizations helping families evicted from their land by paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. The organisation assists more than three million people displaced by violence. Many of those affected by the recent flooding had only just begun to rebuild their lives, having been uprooted by the criminal gangs. Taking up residence in vulnerable areas, on hillsides or close to rivers, it is often the poorest refugees who have been hardest hit by flooding and landslides.
Before Christmas the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, visited the country to assess the flooding situation and also to draw attention to the wider problem of the displaced, both internal refugees and those who have fled across the border to Ecuador. Mr Guterres called on the international community to provide more support for this “little known” humanitarian crisis, praising Ecuador for its generosity in hosting so many refugees and recognising more help is needed from outside. In Bogota, Mr Guterres met some of the estimated 35,000 internally displaced people residing in Colombia’s capital. Many live in the most basic accommodation and struggle to find work in the city. One mother of four, Petrona Mosquera, explained to the High Commissioner how her family lives in a ramshackle home made of wood and scrap metal and in order to put food on the table, they “beg at traffic lights”. Other women she knew resorted to prostitution in order to feed their families.
During a talk with the Colombian president, Mr Guterres spoke of the enormous challenges facing the country to protect the rights of displaced people and the High Commissioner welcomed the government’s plans to oversee the return of land to displaced families over the next four years.