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Plight of refugees highlighted in Colombia

Last month the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, visited Colombia to see for himself the plight of rural Colombians displaced by violent gangs.

While the security situation has improved greatly in some parts of Colombia, along the southern border provinces, guerilla groups clash regularly with the Colombian military. Mr Guterres travelled into Ecuador, where many refugees have fled for safety. The government of Ecuador has recently seen an increase in the number of people crossing its border as gangs intimidate communities and use force to recruit children into their ranks.

UNHCR is active in the region co-ordinating humanitarian work and support for refugee families. The organisation assists more than three million displaced Colombians, including over 50,000 who now reside in neighbouring Ecuador. In fact, aid workers believe the number of refugees here could be far higher, with undocumented cases of Colombians crossing the border possibly as high as 140,000 with the ongoing conflict.

Around half of asylum seekers are women and children, many living in wooden shacks as part of poor jungle communities. Often there is no access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or schooling. And many refugees do not apply for legal asylum status, so they are forced to live on the margins of society. The Ecuadorian government has recently stepped up its efforts to tackle the situation and with support from UNHCR, has introduced a new mobile registration scheme. Over 20,000 Colombians have already been registered through this programme. Equador is spending around 40 million dollars each year caring for the refugees, but with the growing numbers of displaced, Mr Guterres has called on the international community to provide more support for this “little known” humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, UNHCR is trying to highlight the plight of all refugees across the country with a multi-media campaign called “Put yourself in their Shoes”. Launched in December to coincide with the organisation’s 60th anniversary, the year-long campaign will ask people, including celebrities, to literally slip into a pair of someone’s shoes. Francesca was a young child when her family were forced to flee their native region of Granada. The 11-year old handed over the first pair of shoes she received as a refugee to Völker Turk, one of the UNHCR’s officials. Francesca’s family returned back to their farm in 2005 to discover a house in ruins and overgrown fields, which meant they had to begin all over again. Now Francesca occasionally goes to the UNHCR office in Medellin to meet visitors and explain about the challenges faced by people. She acts as a symbol for all the displaced who want to return to their rightful homes.

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