During the year, Venezuela involuntarily returned about 680 Colombian asylum seekers after refusing to allow them to lodge asylum applications. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Colombians were living in Venezuela in refugee-like circumstances.

Venezuela hosted about 100 refugees at the end of 2000. Most came from Nicaragua (36), Colombia (34), and Haiti (32). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized or assisted 47 of these, mostly Colombians (23). In 2000, 78 persons – all but three of them Colombians – applied for refugee status in Venezuela. The Venezuelan authorities did not make determinations on any of the cases.

Venezuela, a signatory to the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol, announced in 1999 that during 2001 it plans to enact legislation that will provide a framework for responding to refugees and asylum seekers. The new constitution that Venezuela adopted in 1999 includes a provision, Article 69, that spells out interim procedures for responding to asylum seekers. During 2000, the Venezuelan authorities made little progress toward enacting permanent legislation on refugees and repeatedly failed to apply Article 69's provisions. According to UNHCR, "The ad hoc Technical Commission informally established by the Government in 1999 to deal with refugee status determination did not operate properly in 2000 and as a consequence did not take any decisions on [asylum] cases."

Colombians in Refugee-Like Circumstances

An unknown number of Colombians have fled to Venezuela in recent years to escape political violence in their homeland. Colombian and Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate that as many as 10,000 may have done so since 1999 alone. Almost none have identified themselves as refugees or requested asylum, possibly out of fear of deportation. According to UNHCR, they "prefer to stay anonymous in order to avoid stigmatization and discrimination." In 2000, only 75 Colombians officially applied for asylum through established channels.

Most of the Colombians in refugee-like circumstances are scattered among the 1.5 million Colombian economic migrants who have settled in Venezuela since the 1970s oil boom. One of the main problems that Colombian refugees encounter is lack of documentation that would permit them to remain legally in the country. Some obtain documents by bribing corrupt local officials. Others purchase false documents. Lack of documentation makes Colombians vulnerable to detention and deportation by the Venezuelan authorities.

No solid data exist regarding the number of Colombians in refugee-like circumstances in Venezuela. However, based on available information, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) estimates their number between 50,000 and 75,000.

Colombian Asylum Seekers

Since mid-1999, Colombian paramilitary groups have been attacking civilians living in the Catatumbo region of Colombia's Norte De Santander Province, which borders Venezuela's Zulia State. The paramilitaries have been trying to wrest control of the region, an important coca-growing area, from the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Colombia's largest guerrilla group. These attacks have forced whole communities to flee to Venezuela in search of refuge.

Following the first paramilitary attack in Norte de Santander in early June 1999, some 2,000 Colombians fled to Venezuela. The vast majority were not local people, however, but transient coca-leaf pickers who repatriated voluntarily to Colombia and returned to their homes in other provinces.

Within days of that first attack, however, the paramilitaries launched an assault on the town of La Pista that forced its 600 residents to flee to Venezuela. USCR, which was present in Venezuela when the group from La Pista entered, traveled to the border and met with many members of the group. They clearly stated fear of returning to Colombia and wanted asylum in Venezuela. However, following USCR's visit, Venezuelan authorities denied local NGOs and UNHCR further access to the Colombians and quickly returned all of them to Colombia. USCR, UNHCR, and local NGOs strongly protested the Venezuelan government's actions.

After violating Venezuela's obligations under the 1967 Protocol, the Venezuelan authorities reached a verbal agreement with UNHCR that they would grant the agency access to future groups of Colombian asylum seekers. The Venezuelan government also said that it would implement the interim asylum determination procedures outlined in Article 69 of the Constitution.

It did not. Two additional groups of Colombians, comprised of about 600 to 1,000 people, entered Venezuela in search of refuge in 1999. The Venezuelan authorities labeled them "displaced persons in transit" and returned them to Colombia, again denying UNHCR and NGOs access to them.

In 2000, several more large groups of Colombians, some 800 people in total, fled attacks by paramilitaries in the Catatumbo area and sought refuge in Venezuela. Many others entered in small groups or family units and scattered along the border area. The Venezuelan authorities returned most of those who entered in the large groups to Colombia, even though some expressly stated that they feared for their safety in Colombia.

On several occasions in 2000, the Venezuelan government denied publicly that there were Colombian asylum seekers in Venezuela. A report by the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA, on an August 2000 site visit to the border to interview a newly arrived group of Colombian asylum seekers, said, "Even though the [government's] Technical Commission had knowledge of the presence of the refugees ... and various groups of refugees interviewed by local media asserted that they were on Venezuelan territory ... the president of the republic, Hugo Chavez, and the minister of defense, Eliezer Hurtado, have insistently denied the presence of this refugee group in Venezuela."

A UNHCR official also visited the border, documented the presence of the group, and established that they wished to be granted asylum. Venezuela's interior minister responded to UNHCR's findings by accusing the agency of fabricating the existence of the refugees in order "to justify its presence in the country." Soon afterward, all 500 members of the group were back in Colombia. Some members of the group later said that they had repatriated voluntarily. However, because Venezuela did not permit UNHCR to monitor their return, and because some among the group did want to remain in Venezuela, USCR considered the return of the group as a whole to be involuntary, and therefore tantamount to refoulement.

There were many difficulties in establishing exactly what was happening on the border at any point in time. The areas in Zulia State that many of the Colombians from Catatumbo enter are isolated and difficult to reach. Most of the Colombians want to be granted at least temporary refuge, but they are not willing to move to a refugee camp if that is what being granted asylum would entail.

Some sources say that members of the Venezuelan military are willing to permit Colombians to remain as long as they don't draw attention to themselves, but that members of the Venezuelan National Guard, who are responsible for patrolling the borders, deport any Colombians they come across.

On November 1, following Venezuela's refoulement of seven Colombians who had clearly indicated that they wished to apply for asylum in Venezuela (they had been threatened by members of a paramilitary group and feared that they would be killed if they returned to Colombia), USCR wrote a strong protest to the Venezuelan government. USCR said, "We find your government's actions, which put the lives of these asylum seekers at risk, particularly reprehensible."


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