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UN Deems Colombia Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis - 2004-05-10


The humanitarian crisis in Colombia is the worst in the western hemisphere, with two million people forced from their homes into slums without basic services. That's the word from the top U.N. emergency relief official, who just returned from a visit to the region. Large sections of Colombia are under the control of drug mafias, and off limits to aid workers.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland calls Colombia one of the world's forgotten humanitarian crises. With drug mafias and paramilitary groups battling the government for control of land for growing illegal coca crops, a million people have been driven from their homes in the past four years, doubling the total number displaced.

Mr. Egeland says at one camp he visited last week outside the city of Cartagena, people were living in squalor, without water or sanitation services. "I just felt it was 10,000 people floating around in a sea of garbage and sewage and with some improvised housing where they had gotten or stolen building materials and put up themselves," he said.

Mr. Egeland says with so many people fleeing their traditional homeland, some of Colombia's indigenous tribes are in danger of extinction, their lands confiscated to make way for coca plantations.

He said the world body would come up with a plan of action within a month to help alleviate the crisis. But he noted that large areas, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people live, are off limits to aid workers.

"I'm particularly concerned with 10 areas where Indian tribes and peasant communities are totally trapped without access by us, the international community, because the guerrillas don't allow entry, because the paramilitary forces don't allow our entry, or because the military offensives, campaigns make it impossible for us to get access," he said.

Mr. Egeland urged wealthy Colombians to do more to help the poor. He said in a country where the richest 10 percent of the population have 50 times more wealth than the poorest 10 percent, the growing slum population has long term implications.

"The crisis of the internally displacement is a crisis of security for Colombia, to have millions of young people together, the traditionally poor, as they call them, and the internally displaced, among them young people with no hope, no education, no feeling of having a future, will lead to massive new recruitment into guerrilla, into the paramilitary forces and into the drug mafias," he said.

Mr. Egeland noted that conditions in Colombia are complicated by the spread of land mines over the past few years in the coca-growing regions. He said Colombia is one of the few countries where the number of land mines is increasing.

Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, has made the war on the cocaine trade a cornerstone of his administration. The United States has earmarked $2.5 billion in aid to the Bogota government over the past four years to finance the campaign.

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