Venezuela hosted about 400 refugees and asylum seekers of various nationalities at the end of 2001. These included 100 refugees recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under its mandate, and 300 persons whose asylum claims were pending with the Venezuelan authorities at year's end. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Colombians were living in Venezuela in refugee-like circumstances.
Venezuela is a signatory to the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol. In October 2001, Venezuela enacted new legislation, the "Organic Law on Asylum and Refugees," that provides a framework for responding to asylum seekers. Until 1999, when the Venezuelan government proposed the new law, UNHCR made asylum determinations under its mandate.
UNHCR described the Organic Refugee Law as "a relatively liberal refugee protection framework" that details asylum procedures, including the establishment of a National Eligibility Commission to adjudicate asylum claims. The new legislation spells out both asylum seekers' rights and the government's responsibilities towards them. Among the law's provisions are that Venezuela will not impose sanctions on asylum seekers for "irregular entry," and that Venezuela will not forcibly return any individual to a territory where his or her life would be endangered.
Developments Before 2001
In 1999 and 2000, Colombian paramilitary groups attacked civilians living in the Catatumbo region of Colombia's Norte De Santander Province, forcing whole communities to flee to Venezuela. The paramilitaries were seeking to wrest control of the region, an important coca-growing area, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's largest guerrilla group. The Venezuelan authorities generally labeled Colombians who fled these attacks as "displaced persons in transit" and returned them to Colombia.
According to UNHCR, "In legal terms, [Venezuela's] civil and military authorities ignored the ... 1967 Protocol." Venezuelan authorities deported undocumented Colombians on a massive scale and "without due process of law," the refugee agency charged. UNHCR said it was likely that some of the Colombians whom the Venezuelan authorities deported had fled generalized violence or individual persecution and thus might have qualified as refugees.
Developments in 2001
In January 2001, UNHCR reported that fighting in Colombia had forced about 400 Colombians to flee to Venezuela, where a local Catholic parish assisted them. The Venezuelan authorities initially did not acknowledge the refugees' presence, saying that they had remained "a few meters from the border." After subsequently acknowledging the Colombians' arrival, the government refused to consider them refugees, again labeling them "displaced [persons] in transit" and returning them.
In March 2001, another group of Colombians fled into Venezuela seeking temporary refuge. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) and other human rights and refugee advocacy groups issued a press release calling on the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to direct the Venezuelan government to provide the Colombians safe haven. The commission asked Venezuela to protect the group, a move that UNHCR called a "highly important precedent for the entire continent." However, Venezuela wrote to the commission on March 27, denying the refugees' presence and contesting the accusation that Venezuelan authorities had forcibly returned previous groups of Colombians who had sought protection.
In August, UNHCR opened an office on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. UNHCR said that the new office would allow the agency to more easily monitor border crossings and ensure that Venezuela protected the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
According to the Colombian human rights group CODHES (Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement), some 4,000 Colombians fled to Venezuela in 2001. Venezuelan authorities forcefully returned most of them – both before and after Venezuela's adoption of the Organic Law in October – without permitting any to lodge asylum applications.
The Organic Refugee Law came into effect on October 3, but by year's end Venezuela had not adopted any regulations for implementing the new legislation. Venezuelan authorities at the border did not appear to apply any of the new law's provisions regarding asylum seekers. As of December 31, Venezuela had also not established the National Eligibility Commission, so no body was in place to determine asylum claims. At year's end, some 300 asylum claims were pending, including 100 filed with the government in 1999 and 2000 (after UNHCR ceased processing asylum claims) and 200 lodged during 2001.
According to UNHCR, "At the end of 2001, it remained unclear whether the government has the political will to make the "new refugee organic law operational."
Colombians in Refugee-like Circumstances
No reliable data exist regarding the number of Colombians in refugee-like circumstances in Venezuela. However, based on available information, USCR estimates their number to be between 50,000 and 75,000. Colombian and Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) believe that as many as 14,000 Colombians may have sought refuge in Venezuela since 1999, but that few have identified themselves as refugees or requested asylum out of fear of deportation. UNHCR and various Venezuelan NGOs plan to undertake a study in 2002 to determine how many Colombians living in Venezuela might be "of concern" to UNHCR.
Most of the Colombians in refugee-like circumstances are scattered among the 1.5 million economic migrants from Colombia who have settled in Venezuela since the 1970's oil boom, and most lack documentation, making them vulnerable to detention and deportation by the Venezuelan authorities. According to CODHES, the Venezuelan authorities deported an average of 800 Colombians monthly during 2001, including both asylum seekers and other Colombians in Venezuela without legal status. The bishop of San Cristobal, a city near the Colombian border, reported that Venezuela deported as many as 1,000 Colombians every month.
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