BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Rising violence by armed groups along Colombia’s southern border regions is forcing growing numbers of people to flee their homes, International Crisis Group (ICG) says.
Many families are seeking refuge in neighbouring Ecuador as communities become increasingly caught up in the middle of fighting.
The worsening security has also led to a rise in sexual violence against women and growing trafficking of Colombian women to Ecuador, ICG said in a report released this week.
Since early 2000, the Colombian military has stepped up its U.S.-backed military offensive in the south aimed at dislodging leftist Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia (FARC) rebels from their jungle strongholds.
This, together with increasing military pressure on rebel groups in Colombia’s cities, has pushed the guerrillas further towards the borders with Ecuador to the southwest and Venezuela to the east.
“As the armed conflict continues unabated, the humanitarian situation remains serious across the southern border regions,” the ICG, a Brussels-based think-tank said.
“Efforts to improve the humanitarian situation and build civilian state capacity must be scaled up, tasks that, amid what is again a partially worsening conflict, have been neglected.”
Colombia’s border regions remain a hotspot of guerrilla activity and drug trafficking. Civilians, particularly Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups, are often caught in clashes between the army and rebels or turf wars between druglords.
“Civilians are increasingly caught in the conflict’s crossfire. In Narino and Putumayo (southern provinces) intensifying military efforts to oust FARC from its strongholds have put them in a very difficult spot,” the report said.
“Colombian security forces frequently stigmatise civilians as guerrilla supporters,” it added.
Colombia is home to one of the world’s largest displaced populations, with up to an estimated four million people uprooted.
“Colombia continues to struggle to attend to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims of the conflict, a large number of whom cross the borders in search of protection,” the report said.
Since the early 2000s, nearly 55,000 Colombians have been officially recognised as refugees by the Ecuadorian government, according to the report.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
The worsening security along Colombia’s porous borders has also increased the trafficking of Colombian women to Ecuador, where they are often forced to work in legal and illegal brothels, the report said.
“That the state response to such trafficking and to improving the often slave-like conditions in the brothels has been muted is blamed by some observers on alleged links between brothel owners and Ecuadorian security officials,’ it added.
Little is being done to protect women against violence and sexual abuse carried out by illegal armed groups in Colombia’s border areas.
“Violence against women is rampant. Armed actors, including the military, regularly abuse them sexually,” Crisis Group said.
Along with fleeing conflict-fuelled violence, families are driven from their homes to avoid their children being forcibly recruited into rebel ranks.
Others are forced from their homes, because government crop-spraying campaigns to eradicate coca – the raw ingredient for cocaine – not only destroy the coca shrub but in some cases subsistence food crops like maize, the report said.
The country’s sparsely populated southern border provinces remain areas where state presence is still fragile and sporadic. This coupled with years of under underinvestment by the Colombian government has left communities without basic state services, such as healthcare and education.
“There are public health posts but no nurses or doctors and schools but no teachers, and frontline workers are not regularly paid,” Crisis Group said.
It also means guerrilla groups control some aspects of daily life, including imposing curfews and confining communities.
“In the absence of effective state presence and services, social control by the guerrillas has long been a reality for rural communities,” the report added.
Shortly after taking power in August 2010, the government of Juan Manuel Santos restored diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Ecuador.
Colombia says it has stepped up bilateral border cooperation and has increased investment in social services and infrastructure across the border provinces.
While improved diplomatic ties have led to better security cooperation, this has not alleviated the plight of vulnerable communities living there, the report said.
“The humanitarian situation should receive more priority in Colombia’s relations with both neighbours. The issues have been part of the initial reconciliation agenda with Ecuador but progress has been limited,” it added.
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