PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 53/06/99
EXTRA 80/99 Fear for safety/Fear of refoulement 1 July 1999
VENEZUELASome 700 Colombian refugees
Some 700 Colombian refugees, who fled paramilitary killings and death threats,
are reportedly about to be forcibly returned from Venezuela. A Venezuelan army
general has apparently told journalists that their return to Colombia is
“imminent” (“inminente”), possibly through the Venezuelan border town of Puerto
Santander. There are serious fears for their safety.
At the end of May 1999 a 400-strong Colombian paramilitary force surrounded
the rural district of La Gabarra, Norte de Santander department, near the border
with Venezuela. The paramilitaries reportedly killed at least five local peasant
farmers, threatened to attack the community and refused to let the inhabitants
leave. The paramilitaries warned others, whom they detained and then released,
that they were going to take control of the district and execute those they
considered to be guerrilla sympathizers or collaborators. On 1 June a Colombian
local ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) reported that the paramilitaries had
killed up to 20 people and abducted a further 15 (see UA 125/99, AI Index AMR
23/44/99, 2 June 1999). The paramilitary incursion was followed by clashes
in the area between Colombian security forces and guerrillas, which are
Since the start of the offensive by Colombian paramilitaries and security
forces, some 3700 Colombian men, women and children have fled across the border
into Venezuela, in four separate waves. Those who crossed in the first three
waves - some 3000 - have already been returned to a part of Colombia where
they are not in immediate danger. Most apparently returned voluntarily. However,
Amnesty International has learned that at least 100 were forcibly returned
after having sought assistance from independent human rights defenders to
formally request asylum in Venezuela. Another 300 were reportedly returned
without having their situation assessed in a full and fair asylum procedure.
The remaining 700 refugees are currently held in a Venezuelan military post
near La Vaquera, municipality of Jesús María Semprum, in the state of Zulia.
They have apparently been denied access to human rights defenders and
journalists. Amnesty International does not know whether they have had access
to representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Under the principle of non-refoulement Venezuela is obliged to ensure that
no person is returned, directly or indirectly, to a country where they would
face serious human rights violations. Implicit in this obligation is the
necessity to establish and ensure access to a satisfactory asylum procedure
to identify those at risk. Such a procedure must include access to the UNHCR
and provisions for an effective appeal against rejection of an asylum claim,
whereby the asylum-seeker is allowed to stay in the country for the duration
of the appeal.
The principle of non-refoulement is recognised by the international community
as a norm of customary international law binding on all States.
Furthermore, Venezuela, together with other members of the Organization of
American States (OAS) proposed the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees,
and should therefore apply the broader definition of a “refugee” enshrined