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New waves of displacement

Colombia's offensive against armed groups has increased the flow of refugees across the Venezuela border.

Since Alvaro Uribe won the Colombian presidency in 2002 with a mandate to defeat the guerrillas, the Colombian army has scored significant victories. Murder and kidnapping rates in the main urban areas have fallen significantly. In 2008, Uribe’s government chalked up three crushing blows against the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): the bombardment of a FARC camp just inside the Ecuadorian border that resulted in the death of the guerrillas’ spokesperson Raul Reyes, the death of their iconic leader Manuel Marulanda in March and the audacious rescue of Ingrid Betancourt who had been campaigning for the presidency when she was kidnapped in 2002. Those victories had many pronouncing FARC a spent force.

But in reality, rather than bringing an end to the 50-year conflict, the army’s efforts have simply shifted the nature of the war in a new direction. Larger groups such as the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) have fragmented into smaller collectives that now run the drug trade from the void left by the dismantling of the drug cartels in the 1990s.

“Some people in the Colombian government like to say that they are in the home stretch and that they are entering a post-conflict phase but the conflict is evolving,” said Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policies.

As new conflicts arise, such as the massacre of 18 members of the Awa indigenous group in Narino last February, neighboring countries see a surge in refugees coming across their borders. A refugee law passed in 2003 in Venezuela created a national commission that registers and approves asylum petitions.

But registration has been slow. To date, about 15,000 asylum seekers have been registered in six years, a small fraction of those who have crossed the border, and about two-thirds of the claims have yet to be decided on, said CONARE’s president Ricardo Rincon, who says he has just six lawyers at his disposal. Rincon said that the commission has to be cautious because of Colombian and Peruvian mafia groups operating in people trafficking, while the global recession had also affected his access to funds.

The relative newness of the refugee law has resulted in a paucity of knowledge among Venezuelans and refugees alike about their rights. Asylum seekers have struggled to obtain credit loans and bank accounts to which they are entitled, while UNHCR has also learned of irregularities at the border where members of the National Guard have been reported to be demanding payments of up to $400 from asylum seekers for permission to enter Venezuela.

“It may well be that that is happening but if the refugee doesn't report the name and surname of the citizen who is doing that, how can we react?” Rincon said.

Gonzalez said he has rebuilt his life in Venezuela. His children are all in school and he gets by with casual labor in the construction industry. He has a new circle of friends and his family does its best to help other new arrivals fleeing Colombia’s troubles.

But he rarely talks about his experiences and suffers from vertigo and a fear of enclosed spaces — the mental scars, he said, of his time in captivity.