Colombia + 6 more

UNHCR briefing notes: EU, Colombia, Kenya/Somalia

News and Press Release
Originally published
Ron Redmond - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) European Union

UNHCR welcomes yesterday's adoption of a European Union directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, which should ensure that most asylum seekers will receive a uniform package of benefits both in today's Europe and the Europe of the future.

While it would like to have seen more safeguards in certain areas, UNHCR recognizes that the new directive is an important step in bringing greater coherence to asylum policy in the European Union.

The European Council directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers in member states was announced in Luxembourg Thursday afternoon by the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union. The directive, which will eventually be reflected in national legislation throughout all EU member states, contains some provisions that will result in an overall improvement in general reception conditions in several EU countries.

In particular, UNHCR is pleased to note the detailed sections of the directive regulating access to health care and education and the provision of identity documents and vital information on asylum procedures, including legal assistance.

In addition, there are important sections of the directive that require EU states to take special measures for vulnerable individuals, including victims of torture or violence, unaccompanied children, pregnant women and the disabled.

But UNHCR believes that certain aspects of the directive could actually lower standards in some countries. UNHCR feels the decision by the EU states not to harmonize the very different national policies and practices regarding access to employment is a drawback, particularly at a time when many states are talking about labour deficits and are also concerned about the costs of supporting asylum seekers through a sometimes lengthy asylum process. Not allowing asylum seekers - many of whom are talented and skilled professionals - to work is not beneficial to market economies. This view was supported by a recent study conducted by the Swiss government, which concluded that not only did giving asylum seekers the right to work not act as a pull factor, but that the employment of asylum seekers also acted as a significant positive contribution to the national economy.

UNHCR supports the EU harmonisation process, which has set two key objectives -- a common standard of protection and assistance for refugees and asylum seekers, and an improved asylum system that will benefit member states and their citizens.

UNHCR believes that a well-harmonized asylum system based on a common interest rather than on a state's individual domestic concerns would be of enormous benefit not only to the European Union itself, but also to future generations of refugees. A well-organized, streamlined system would alleviate the pressures caused by asylum seekers moving from state to state in search of better treatment.

We will be giving more details in a press release that will come out shortly.

2) Colombia

Increased fighting between leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia's border regions is causing thousands of people, mostly women and children, to flee their homes. Most remain internally displaced, but some are forced to look for safety in neighbouring countries.

In the past three months, the number of civilians escaping insecurity in Colombia and crossing the border into Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama has been steadily growing as armed clashes intensify in the Colombian border regions of Norte de Santander, Nariño and Chocó. The number of Colombians applying for asylum at the Venezuelan border in the first three months of 2002 (387 cases), for example, has already surpassed the total number of asylum applications filed in the whole of Venezuela during the last two years (75 in 2000 and 311 in 2001). In Ecuador, similarly, the number of persons (mostly Colombians) receiving refugee status during the first three and a half months of 2002 (416) is already nearing the total number for the whole of last year (443). UNHCR expects these trends to continue during 2002.

UNHCR estimates that the real number of persons of concern in the region could be considerably higher than that registered due to the difficulties of monitoring remote land borders and problems of access to institutional protection mechanisms. In Panama's Darien region, for example, Colombians fleeing violence continue to arrive. Many faced considerable danger in remote and inhospitable jungle areas. Earlier this week, Panama's National Office for Refugee Affairs (ONPAR) confirmed that at least 12 people (mainly women and children) had arrived by boat to the border town of Jaqué, escaping armed clashes near the Colombian town of Juradó, in Chocó Province. Another, smaller group, is said to have stayed in the indigenous village of Cocalito closer to the border. More Juradó villagers are thought to be heading toward Panama on foot. ONPAR is working with UNHCR partners, the police and immigration authorities to prepare for any new arrivals. Over the last few months, Panama has seen a steady trickle of refugees enter amid renewed fighting in Colombia. The number of persons of concern registered by UNHCR in Panama (including urban refugees, asylum seekers and persons under Humanitarian Protection) is currently 1,626.

In addition, in the first three months of 2002 more than 3,200 Colombians have sought asylum outside the immediate region in 24 European countries, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, over 12,800 Colombians sought asylum in 28 mostly industrialized countries. Another 5,000 Colombians requested refugee status in Costa Rica last year, compared with 1,450 in 2000 and just 88 the year before. The trend is continuing, with over 1,150 new applications filed during the first three months of this year.

In all, the conflict in Colombia has uprooted an estimated 2 million people over the past 40 years.

3) Kenya / Somalia

Up to 6,000 Somalis have fled into the north-eastern Kenya border town of Mandera to escape inter-clan fighting which erupted nearly two weeks ago in the Bula Hawa and Luuq region. Bula Hawa is some two kilometres from the Kenya/Somalia border. Somali clan elders however place the number of displaced at some 10,000.

A mediation meeting of elders from the warring sub-clans which was held in Mandera at the weekend reached a "ceasefire" agreement. The parties in conflict agreed to establish a peace committee and to relocate all the militia to a location outside Bula Hawa. The reconciliation meeting also agreed on ways to secure the town of Bula Hawa and asked for repatriation assistance for those displaced by the fighting.

A UNHCR team which visited the border town last Saturday said the majority of those who have fled across the border into Kenya are women and children. Many are living with family and friends in the remote town which borders Ethiopia and Somalia. Workers at Mandera Hospital said that four people who had been rushed to the hospital from the scene of fighting had died from their wounds. Among them was a baby who was shot while strapped to his mother's back. Two people, including the dead child's mother, were evacuated to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi for further treatment. Another four people with gunshot wounds were still at the hospital undergoing treatment but were said to be in stable condition.

Aid workers say many of the new arrivals are living in groups of up to 40 people under temporary shelter. Most are in good physical condition. Food and water is available although there is concern that resources will soon run out if the inter-clan conflict is not resolved quickly.

Many of the displaced who spoke to UNHCR staff expressed their desire to return to their homes as soon as possible. UNHCR has appealed to the Kenya government to shelter the displaced until the situation in Bula Hawa returns to normal.