At the end of 1999, Venezuela hosted about 180 refugees, mostly from Colombia (50), Chile (39) Nicaragua (36), and Haiti (33). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized 60 of these, mostly Colombians (40). During 1999, 64 persons formally applied for refugee status, of whom UNHCR approved 39.

During the year, the Venezuelan authorities involuntarily returned 1,650 Colombian asylum seekers, refusing to allow them to lodge asylum applications. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 other Colombians were living in Venezuela in refugee-like circumstances.

Although Venezuela, which in 1999 chaired UNHCR's Executive Committee (EXCOM), has signed the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol, the government did not enact legislation to implement any of the Protocol's provisions until 1999. In August, Venezuela adopted a constitutional provision on asylum and refuge. Article 69, as the provision is known, established a national body, the Technical Commission, to deal with refugee issues. The Commission was to be responsible for adjudicating asylum claims, which it began to do in August. Previously, UNHCR had adjudicated asylum claims filed in Venezuela.

Between September and December, UNHCR referred 34 asylum applicants, all Colombians, to the Technical Commission to determine their refugee status. The Commission approved all 34. It also provided them documentation allowing them to remain in Venezuela legally.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) visited Venezuela in June 1999, traveling both to the capital, Caracas, and to the Venezuelan-Colombian border to assess conditions for newly arrived Colombian refugees.

Colombian Asylum Seekers

Four groups of Colombians, totaling some 3,900 people, fled to Venezuela in June. They fled offensives by paramilitary groups, who massacred dozens of civilians in their home areas in Colombia.

A first group, some 2,230 people, entered in early June. They fled a paramilitary offensive that began on May 29. Paramilitary forces set up roadblocks on the Tibu-La Gabarra road, about two-and-a-half miles (four km) from a police station. They detained more than 100 persons. According to refugee testimonials, they later executed eight of the detainees and "disappeared" 16. The paramilitary forces also reportedly killed civilians in several nearby communities, including Aguaclara, where they rounded up local residents and forced them to watch the execution of five of their neighbors, and Pedregales, where they killed another five civilians.

Members of the first group of Colombians who fled to Venezuela repatriated voluntarily on June 5 and 6. USCR, which was present in Colombia at that time, interviewed returnees in Cucuta and confirmed that their repatriation was voluntary. Most were seasonal workers who did not reside permanently in La Gabarra (the area from which they fled). They had homes elsewhere in Colombia and wanted to return there. They said that the Venezuelan authorities treated them well during their brief stay there.

Another group of about 650 Colombians fled to Venezuela from La Pista, near La Gabarra, between June 5 and 9. They fled after paramilitary forces told them to leave their villages within 12 hours or be killed. Unlike the first group, most were full-time residents of the area and expressed fear of being returned to Colombia. They said that, if returned, they would be at risk of attack by the paramilitary groups whom they had fled. They also expressed fear of the Colombian military, whom some members of the group accused of facilitating the paramilitary group's attack.

USCR traveled to the border on June 8, as the last 250 persons in this group arrived. USCR, accompanied by Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), met with the asylum seekers. They assured USCR that they wanted asylum in Venezuela, not repatriation to Colombia. The group had sent letters to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the governor of Zulia State asking them for refugee status, protection, and assistance in Venezuela. While USCR was present, 150 heads of families signed a petition indicating their desire for asylum. The Venezuelan NGOs handed copies of those petitions to UNHCR and the Venezuelan armed forces on June 9.

The next day, USCR and the Venezuelan NGOs held a press conference in Caracas attended by Venezuela's major newspapers. USCR emphasized the Colombians' request for asylum. In a press release, USCR said, "Because of the cooperation between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary units [that the refugees witnessed], the refugees say they would not be safe anywhere in Colombia. That is why they have fled to Venezuela." That day, the Venezuelan military transferred the Colombians to a military base at Casigua El Cubo, where they denied UNHCR and Venezuelan human rights groups access to them.

On June 12, the Venezuelan military invited several Colombian officials, including the army officer in charge of military operations in the Colombians' home area, Colonel Victor Hugo Matamorros, to meet with the refugees at the military base. Matamorros's troops, the refugees had said, not only failed to prevent or stop the paramilitary attack on the civilian population, but appeared actively to aid it.

According to eyewitnesses at the meeting between Matamorros and the refugees, Matamorros intimidated and threatened the refugees, warning them that if they didn't return to Colombia, the military would regard them as guerrilla sympathizers. Following the meeting, the group "agreed" to return to Colombia. On June 13, Venezuela returned all 650 members of the group to Colombia, handing them over to the Colombian military at the border.

The Venezuelan and Colombian militaries declared the repatriation "voluntary," but USCR and the Venezuelan NGOs who were present at the border strongly disagreed. Because of the pressure, intimidation, and threats directed at the Colombians, the group's decision to return was not voluntary. USCR wrote to President Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela and President Andres Pastrana of Colombia criticizing their governments' actions. In its letter to President Chavez, USCR said, "These refugees fled Colombia fearing for their lives and asked your government for protection. To pressure them into repatriating, and to permit the Colombian military to intimidate and threaten them while they were in your care, is a grave violation of their rights and of established international principles."

Between June 13 and 16, another 300 Colombians fled to Venezuela. The Venezuelan military returned the group to Colombia before the international community learned of their flight.

Another 700 Colombians from the Catatumbo area of Norte de Santander Department entered Venezuela in search of asylum beginning on June 29. Venezuelan military officials told the Colombians that if they did not get back in their boats and leave immediately, they would forcibly return them to the Colombian military. The Venezuelan military prevented UNHCR, human rights workers, and representatives of the Catholic Church from seeing the refugees. According to press reports, the Venezuelan authorities referred to the asylum seekers as "invaders" who had no right to benefit from international human rights principles. USCR and three other U.S.-based NGOs petitioned the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to take steps to prevent Venezuela from deporting the group, but the Commission did not intervene.

Intimidated by the Venezuelan military's threats, but fearful of returning home, many of the asylum seekers went by canoe to La Isla, an island in the middle of the river that separates Venezuela and Colombia. They remained there for several days without any assistance before returning to Colombia. Some members of the original group of 700 were unable to board canoes to La Isla. The Venezuelan authorities returned them through the same route by which it had returned the earlier groups.

USCR issued a press release calling the Venezuelan government's actions "reprehensible." USCR added, "Venezuela should resign as president of UNHCR's Executive Committee. If it does not, its fellow Executive Committee (EXCOM) members should vote it out of office."

UNHCR said, "UNHCR is of the opinion that the accelerated procedures used (at least in the case of one of the groups) were not consistent with principles of International Refugee Law (i.e. the right to seek asylum, respect for the principle of nonrefoulement, and the voluntary nature of any return movement in conditions of safety and dignity)."

On June 29, after Venezuela had forcibly repatriated more than a thousand refugees, Venezuela addressed EXCOM's 15th session. Despite having denied UNHCR access to the Colombian asylum seekers, the Venezuelan representative told EXCOM, "It should be underlined that the participation and support of UNHCR was highly appreciated by the Venezuelan authorities, who facilitated the organization's representatives' access to the reception zone."

The representative added, "The solution to the problem of displaced persons does not necessarily require their stay outside their country of origin, if there are sufficient guarantees in other zones of their same country." Finally, the representative warned that in some situations affecting national security, governments might be obliged to "treat the question [of the entry of refugees] on a strictly bilateral level."

In a letter to USCR, the Venezuelan government said that "all of the Colombians who found themselves at Casigua El Cubo spontaneously manifested their wish to be moved to Colombian territory." Referring to the Colombians as "internally displaced Colombians in transit through Venezuelan territory," the government again claimed that "at no time did the Venezuelan authorities force the Colombians to return to their country."

Other Colombians

An unknown number of Colombians, perhaps 50,000 to 75,000, have fled to Venezuela in recent years to escape the violence in their homeland, although they have not identified themselves as refugees nor requested asylum. They have generally settled among the 1.5 million Colombians thought to be living in Venezuela, mostly economic migrants who moved to Venezuela during the 1970s oil boom.

According to UNHCR, "The broad majority of Colombians [in Venezuela] fleeing individual persecution or generalized violence in their country...prefer to stay anonymous in order to avoid stigmatization and discrimination."

Some observers, such as the Zulian Institute for Frontier Studies, put the number of Colombians who could be considered refugees at about 10,000. In recent years, other sources have said their number could be as high as 150,000. In previous years, USCR reported the higher end of that range. Following its site visit to Venezuela in 1999, however, USCR estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 Colombians were living in refugee-like circumstances.

Colombians living in refugee-like circumstances in Venezuela face a range of problems. According to UNHCR, one of their main problems is the lack of documentation that would permit them to remain legally in the country. Lack of such documentation makes individuals vulnerable to "administrative detention" by the Venezuelan authorities.

Children born in Venezuela to undocumented Colombians, including those in refugee-like circumstances, often become stateless. Under Venezuelan law, all children born in the country are entitled to Venezuelan citizenship. But local civil register offices often prevent Colombians form registering their new-born children.

Colombians who seek safe haven in Venezuela sometimes find that the problems they fled have followed them to Venezuela. Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups regularly cross into Venezuela and kidnap people for ransom, although the number of such kidnappings has dropped in recent years.

In 1999, Codhes, the leading Colombian NGO that tracks causes of displacement and numbers of displaced in Colombia, began estimating the number of Colombians fleeing to neighboring countries. Codhes estimates that in addition to the 3,900 Colombians who fled to Venezuela in large groups in 1999, another 1,800 Colombians fled there as individuals. Like most Colombians who have sought refuge in Venezuela, they did not request asylum, but settled anonymously among Colombians living there.


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