Colombia has biggest humanitarian crisis in Western Hemisphere, UN says

Jan Egeland

10 May 2004 – Though kidnapping and assassination have declined in Colombia, the humanitarian situation has worsened, with 2 million people becoming displaced over the past 15 years and 1 million of those made homeless in the last three or four years alone, the United Nations chief of humanitarian relief said today.

The South American country had the world's third largest internally displaced population, after the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan, but it was a largely forgotten crisis, Jan Egeland, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told journalists at UN Headquarters in New York.

"Colombia has had an increasingly dirty war in recent years in which paramilitary forces and the guerrillas systematically attacked the civilian populations they believed to be supporting the other," he said.

The consequent displacement posed a security risk for Colombia, since it could lead to a massive recruitment of millions of young people by the guerrilla groups, the paramilitary forces and the drug gangs, said Mr. Egeland, a former UN Special Adviser on Colombia.

OCHA would launch a new and extensive humanitarian aid plan next month focusing for 18 months on concrete humanitarian projects for the internally displaced and replacing the smaller plan launched two years ago, he said.

Aid from the United States had led to the decline in common crime, he said, but the policy of killing cocoa crops was highly controversial among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and across the country, even as the multibillion-dollar narcotics industry fuelled the intense conflict. The drug trade, while causing misery on both receiving and producing ends, caused even more misery on the production side, Mr. Egeland said.

He said he had talked to President Álvaro Uribe and his ministers, 60 NGOs and representatives of 25 concerned countries and had recommended to the Colombians that the government devote more resources to the IDPs, but most of the government's spending paid for the civil war and the national debt.

Indian Colombians and Afro-Colombians were subjected to the worst hardships of the drug war and some Indian tribes were being threatened with extinction, he said. Friends he had made while spending a month with an Indian tribe when he was a teenager had been massacred, dispersed or besieged by drug mafias and the paramilitary forces.

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