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Intensified Fighting in Colombia Worries UN Refugee Agency - 2002-11-10

The U.N. refugee agency says it is concerned that intensified fighting in Colombia among government, rebel, and right-wing paramilitary groups could cause thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries. Recent figures show a significant increase in the numbers of Colombians crossing borders seeking asylum.

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports about 1,200 Colombians sought asylum last month in Ecuador, three times the average monthly number of refugees crossing into Ecuador since the UNHCR opened its office in the country nearly two years ago.

UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Clark said the refugees were forced to flee Colombia because of intensified fighting or because of threats from the paramilitary or guerrilla groups. "Some have also expressed a fear of possible forced recruitment by some of these groups and a smaller number, a few families, have also said that they left because of the increased fighting and because of the aerial fumigation of illicit crops in the border region," she said.

The U.N. refugee agency reports that border areas in Venezuela are also affected by the worsening situation in Colombia. Ms. Clark said paramilitary groups from Colombia are said to be carrying out increasing attacks and selective killings in several Venezuelan border towns. As a consequence, she said the Venezuelan government is reinforcing border security.

"This is of concern to us of course because many of the refugees and asylum seekers, the Colombians who have actually fled this kind of fighting, have fled these threats and attacks in their own country. Many of them are in the border areas of the countries they have fled to. So, certainly any increased instability in the border areas of the neighboring countries will impact on refugees and asylum seekers. And, that is of concern to us," she said.

Ms. Clark said her agency is worried that the safeguards adopted by the Venezuelan government to keep rebels from crossing into its territory also might keep out genuine asylum seekers.