Colombian Refugees Flee to Venezuela, But Are Coerced into Returning

Hiram A. Ruiz, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, went to the Venezuelan-Colombian border when this refugee crisis arose. He contributed this report and the accompanying photos.After a one-hour flight to San Vicente del Caguán (population about 14,000), the largest town in the demilitarized zone, the group drove two hours down a dirt road to the hamlet of La Machaca, where the meeting took place. With the exception of several FARC roadblocks, often run by very young-looking but well-equipped guerrillas, life in the zone appeared rather normal from the windows of the group's vehicles. The town of San Vicente was busy, with all stores and saloons open for business, and the countryside B nearly all of it cleared for cattle pasture B seemed peaceful.

During early June, two groups of Colombian refugees, altogether some 2,800 people, fled from Norte de Santander department into Venezuela. Both groups fled an offensive by paramilitaries in the area of La Gabarra, Tibú. The paramilitaries massacred dozens of civilians in the region.

Venezuela's treatment of the first group was not problematic, mostly due to the nature of the group. However, the response of the governments of both Venezuela and Colombia to the second group are cause for great concern. Members of the second group were pressured, intimidated, and threatened into repatriating. The way the two governments treated these refugees clearly suggests that they have entered into some type of agreement aimed at preventing Colombians who fear persecution in their homeland from seeking refuge in Venezuela. This not only poses grave danger for Colombians who might need such refuge in the future, it is also a flagrant breach of the UN Refugee Convention, to which both Venezuela and Colombia are signatories. It is also violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 14 specifically guarantees refugees' right to seek and enjoy asylum.

The first group of Colombian refugees, some 2,200 people from the area of La Gabarra, entered Venezuela between June 1 and 3 and repatriated voluntarily on June 5 and 6. Most members of this group were not residents of La Gabarra, but seasonal workers who labored in the coca fields and other itinerant workers. This first group of 2,200 refugees received good care from the Venezuelan authorities.

According to the Venezuelan authorities, they did not want to remain in Venezuela, but to return to their homes in various regions of eastern Colombia. Initially, USCR did not know what information the group had received about their rights as refugees and therefore questioned if their planned return was voluntary. After interviewing a number of the returnees in Cúcuta, however, USCR was convinced that the vast majority returned voluntarily.

Though most were eager to return to Colombia, several of the refugees were wary. They met with Venezuelan human rights groups and a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to discuss their concerns, but subsequently decided to return to Cúcuta.

Members of the second group of 600 refugees, who fled to Venezuela beginning Monday, June 7, were substantially different from the first group. The Venezuelan government's response to them was likewise different.

Members of this group were peasants who lived in 15 villages in the area of La Pista, north of La Gabarra. They had their homes and land in la Pista. They fled to escape the advance of the paramilitaries from La Gabarra toward their region.

USCR visited the refugees on the Venezuela-Colombia border before any Venezuelan or international authorities arrived. Members of the group told USCR that they had specifically fled to Venezuela to seek asylum there, and that they would not return to Colombia because they feared for their lives there.

Many of the refugees had participated in human rights training programs sponsored in their communities in recent years by Colombian human rights groups, and were well aware of their right to seek asylum and not to be involuntarily returned to Colombia. Upon entering Venezuela, the refugees sent a letter to Venezuelan President Chávez, urging him to grant them refugee status, protection, and assistance in Venezuela.

Several days after their arrival at La Vaquera, the refugees were transferred by the Venezuelan military to the town of Casigua on June 10, ostensibly because of the inadequate physical conditions at La Vaquera. At Casigua, however, the Venezuelan authorities denied the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to them, and also kept representatives of Venezuelan human rights groups at bay. The Venezuelan military tried to pressure the refugees into returning. They wanted to return them immediately, but the refugees refused to go. The Venezuelan military photographed each of the refugees, which undoubtedly caused them a great deal of fear.

The Venezuelan military then invited representatives of the Colombian military, and civilian authorities in Norte de Santander to meet the refugees. Colombian Gen. Hugo Matamoros, who many Colombians believe is sympathetic to the right-wing paramilitaries, addressed the refugees in a manner that eyewitnesses have said was intimidating and threatening. He accused them of having lied about what had happened in their home areas (many of the refugees had accused the Colombian armed forces of collaborating with the paramilitaries during the latter's offensive). Matamoros tried to get the refugees to say that some among them were guerrillas who were pressuring the others into making false statements.

Following these egregious intimidations and threats, all of the refugees "agreed" to return. The Venezuelan and Colombian militaries then made hasty arrangements to return them as quickly as possible.

The Venezuelan and Colombian militaries declared the repatriation "voluntary," but because of the intimidation and threats directed at the refugees, USCR believes that the repatriation cannot be considered voluntary.

USCR has written letters to President Chávez of Venezuela and President Pastrana of Colombia expressing "strong condemnation" for their governments roles in the return of the 600 refugees. In the letter to Chavez, USCR responded to a comparison that Chavez made regarding the Colombian refugee influx being a "mini-Kosovo." USCR said, "Regrettably, your government's response to this 'mini-Kosovo' was far removed from that of Albania to the Kosovar refugees. While Venezuelan officials pressured the 600 Colombian refugees to leave Venezuela, Albania, a country that is much smaller and arguably poorer than Venezuela, welcomed the more than 600,000 Kosovars who sought refuge there." USCR also said that the Venezuelan military's having denied the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the Colombian refugees was "not only a breach of Venezuela's obligation under the UN Refugee Convention," but also "an affront to UNHCR."

In the letter to Pastrana, USCR focused on Gen. Matamoros's comments to the refugees, which USCR said were intimidating and threatening: "To intimidate and threaten them [the 600 refugees] into repatriating - particularly in view of your government's manifest inability to protect its civilian population - is immoral and a grave violation of their rights established international principles."


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