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The Venezuelan government say they will keep the borders open and has asked the institutions involved to continue working closely together in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. (Shaina Aber — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Zulia, Venezuela) July 31, 2013 – According to the Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela team in this town on the border of Colombia, more than 800 campesinos from the northeastern Colombian region of Catatumbo crossed the border seeking safety mid-July due to a resurgence of conflict in the area a month earlier.

Although there are no precise figures on the numbers of displaced, the situation is said to be tense. In a meeting with two humanitarian organizations operating in Zulia state, the president of the national refugee commission (CNR), Yldefonso Finol, said that at least 300 people are believed to have arrived in the Jesús María Semprún municipality in the Venezuelan state of Zulia in the last three weeks. In this meeting, it was also made known that new settlements of displaced Colombians are very close to the Venezuelan border. 

On June 11, some 15,000 campesinos from Catatumbo in northereastern Colombia blocked the main highways in the area in order to demand the establishment of a rural reserve zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina) covering 365,000 hectacres. Rural reserve zones are territories granted by the state to campesino and indigenous communities. Without this status, large agro-industry and mining businesses would prevent these communities from farming the land.

At the end of the 1990s, paramilitaries — supported by elements of the state and wealthy Colombians — were responsible for the murder of 1,200 people and the displacement of 90,000 others, many of whom sought refuge in Venezuela.

The situation in the border zone is very worrying. Refugees in La Guacamaya, Venezuela, have accused the Colombian security forces of having established check points to prevent the entry or exit of food or people. Venezuelan authorities are also taking measures to deal with a probable worsening of the situation for Colombian campesinos. 

JRS has received information that a group of campesinos have requested access to the country. The Venezuelan government say they will keep the borders open and has asked the institutions involved — the CNR, the civil protection office, the office of the ombudsman, the governor of Zulia, the Jesús María Semprún municipality and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) — to continue working closely together in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. 

Humanitarian organizations involved have stated that their objective is to raise awareness of the needs of the refugees in La Guacamaya, and ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable — women, children, adolescents and older people — are prioritized.

According to JRS, basic services in La Guacamaya are limited. For instance, there is no drinking water, there are no latrines and electricity is very limited. The delivery of food, water, clothing and medicines is being coordinated by the civil protection office and Jesús María Semprún municipality. These organizations state they will seek assistance from humanitarian organizations if the situation in Catatumbo worsens and if the refugees remain in La Guacamaya.

The overall coordination of humanitarian assistance will be organized by the CNR-Zulia and UNHCR. If the emergency persists measures will be taken to ensure the refugees receive provisional residence documentation. The campesinos themselves have already taken steps to register those present in the area and those in need of assistance. Yldefonso Finol said the CNR plans to organize a registration day to give documentation to the nearly 300 people located in nearby Casigua el Cubo and El Cruce areas.

The authorities have made a commitment to manage the crisis in an open and transparent manner and to be open to information provided through the UNHCR-CNR humanitarian response structure.

by Manuel Zapata S.J.
JRS accompaniment team member in Zulia, Venezuela

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