Two US-backed initiatives have exacerbated the decades-old crisis in Colombia, "the direst humanitarian crisis in the Western hemisphere," according to two bishops who recently travelled there. Miami Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski, Chairman of the bishops' Migration Committee, and committee member Auxiliary Bishop John Manz of Chicago, travelled through Colombia and Ecuador to see firsthand the plight of Colombians displaced from their homes due to the ongoing conflict there. They were in the region May 4-11. "Since 1985, nearly three million Colombians have been displaced by the civil war," the two bishops said in a joint statement released yesterday. The situation, they said, "has been exacerbated under the US-supported Plan Colombia initiated in 2000 and followed by the US Andean Regional Initiative." These two initiatives, with their strong anti-narcotics emphasis, have resulted in driving increasing numbers of Colombian farmers and others from their homes to escape the fumigation efforts. Some estimates place the number of those displaced from their homes in 2002 at over 400,000. More than 37,000 fled to Ecuador alone. In addition, expanded US of military aid in Colombia has undermined the human rights certification process there. As a consequence of their mission to South America, Bishops Wenski and Manz offered four major recommendations to ease the plight of Colombian refugees and internally displaced, namely: * Resettlement should be made a more viable option for Colombians. The United Nations and the US government should make more available resettlement in the United States as a viable option for Colombians in Ecuador and Costa Rica. The UN and the United States should call upon the governments of Venezuela and Panama to provide safe haven to Colombians fleeing fighting in border regions. In addition, vulnerable groups should be considered for resettlement; individualized security assessments of Colombian refugees should be made; and better use of local non-governmental organizations should be made to identify and refer Colombian refugees. * In-country processing should be considered for special groups within Colombia. Emergency cases of Colombians who are at risk there should be considered within Colombia. A program which is discreet and considers those cases which require immediate evacuation would provide a necessary avenue for Colombians in danger within Colombia. * Temporary Protected Status should be granted Colombians in the United States. Colombians in the United States should be granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) until the conflict in Colombia is over. With an increase in the intensity of the conflict, it would further destabilize conditions in the country to return Colombians home at this time. * US assistance to the internally displaced and refugees should be increased. Only 20 percent of US assistance to Colombia is targeted for the humanitarian crisis, the remainder earmarked for military assistance. Of the 20 percent, the majority of the funds are directed toward alternative development, leaving little for direct emergency aid, such as food, clothing, and shelter of large numbers of displaced Colombians. "The armed conflict in Colombia has lasted 40 years, with millions displaced from their homes and an untold number killed," the bishops said in their statement. "Until peace is achieved, we ask the US government to increase efforts to provide protection to Colombian refugees and internally displaced." Source: US Bishops Conference
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