Displacement in Colombia will persist despite ceasefire, UN says

Thursday, 23 June 2016 21:52 GMT

A woman celebrates the signing of a historic ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels at Botero square in Medellin, Colombia, June 23, 2016. The sign reads "Peace". REUTERS/Fredy Builes

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Powerful organized crime involved in drug-trafficking, illegal mining and extortion rackets will keep displacing Colombians

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, June 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Colombians will be forced to flee their homes each year, despite a ceasefire accord signed on Thursday between the government and rebels, due to violence by other armed groups, the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

Colombia's government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an agreement to end hostilities with a definitive bilateral ceasefire, bringing them close to ending Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

The half century of war has killed more than 200,000 people.

But powerful organized crime involved in drug-trafficking, illegal mining and extortion rackets will keep displacing Colombians, Martin Gottwald, acting head of the UNHCR office in Colombia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The news of the bilateral ceasefire is very important. But at the same time we have to be cautious as this is only the beginning of the peace process and not the end," Gottwald said.

"Displacement in Colombia, it won't go away with the bilateral ceasefire," he said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, signed the historic accord in Havana, where talks began in late 2012.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attended the ceremony along with other dignitaries.

The accord lays out how some 7,000 rebels will demobilize and lay down their weapons over the coming months. A final agreement is expected to be signed in Colombia in July.

Santos and the FARC agreed the final accord would be put to the Colombian people to approve.

The decades of fighting among government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups have uprooted 6.9 million Colombians, a figure ranking Colombia first in the world followed by Syria and Iraq, according to the UNHCR.

Nearly four years of peace talks and a unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC last summer have led to a decline in the number of Colombians displaced.

But government figures show 113,700 people were freshly displaced last year, many forced from their homes by organized crime groups.

"It is likely that displacement figures for 2016 will be close to those of 2015, due to ongoing violence in various parts of the country, particularly in border areas and at the Pacific Coast," Gottwald said.

Ending forced displacement hinges on making sure organized criminal gangs, known as BACRIM, do not take over territory once controlled by the rebels, Gottwald said.

Colombia's presidential advisor for human rights, Paula Gaviria, has said violence by BACRIM causes more people to flee their homes than that by FARC rebels.

In March and April alone, the UNHCR reported that more than 6,000 Colombians fled to escape clashes between armed groups fighting over territory in the western province of Choco, an area rich in gold and silver.

Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups are particularly at risk as their ancestral lands are often located in resource-rich areas, Gottwald said.

Experts say there is no shortage of criminal groups, with more than 3,000 members, who could fill the vacuum of power.

The rise of new criminal gangs, including Colombia's powerful Urabenos, stems partly from a failure of the demobilization of paramilitary groups.

A 2003 peace accord led to more than 35,000 paramilitary fighters handing in their weapons, but many remained armed and formed new criminal groups.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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