Sat, Aug 05, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombian refugees find safety, security in Chile


They flow out of Colombia, leaving behind their homes and families as they cross border after border seeking refuge from death threats and constant fear.

Carlos' journey began when his 17-year old sister was raped by right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia.

After reporting the rape with his cousin Patricia, a paramilitary death squad attacked their home, forcing them to flee.

Patricia and Carlos have since been on the move -- through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina before arriving in Chile in June. Carlos worries constantly about his sister and the rest of his family, who are still in Colombia.

Politically stable and economically successful, Chile has become a beacon for political refugees lacking the means to make it to the US or Europe. The country, once a major exporter of political exiles in the 1970s and 1980s, is now home to a growing number of people fleeing persecution, most of them Colombians.

Asylum applications rose to 256 last year, from 131 in 2004, and the first six months of this year brought in almost 300 more, almost 90 percent refugees fleeing Colombia's violence.

For Colombian migrants leaving behind the destruction of decades of violence, Chile has become a place where they can find both safety and economic security.

"Since its return to democracy [in 1990], Chilean institutions are functioning better than in the rest of Latin America," political scientist Marco Moreno said.

The rise in Colombian asylum seekers comes from globalization, said Father Rodrigo Tupper, head of the Chilean Catholic church's refugee aid services.

While Chile's citizens often shun dark-skinned newcomers, he said, Chile markets itself to the rest of the world as "an ordered country that is growing economically and that has democratic and political stability."

There are other political refugees living in Chile -- from Congo, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- but the journey is easier for Colombians.

And they have ample reason to flee, given that Colombia has been plagued by violence since the 1960s, with the government fighting both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries tied to narcotrafficking.

Amnesty International estimates three million people are internally displaced within Colombia. Most emigrees end up in the US or Spain, as well as neighboring Venezuela.

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