Colombia: Thousands of people stranded without humanitarian assistance as conflict escalates in southwest

MSF teams provided assistance, including mental health care, in Olaya Herrera municipality in Nariño department, Colombia, to respond to the forced displacement of hundreds of people.
Colombia 2020 © Luis Angel Argote/MSF
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New York March 3, 2020—Escalating conflict in southwestern Colombia over the past several months has caused a humanitarian emergency and left 14,000 people without adequate assistance, said the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF calls on Colombian authorities to urgently increase its assistance to civilians affected by the conflict in Nariño department and to grant immediate access to MSF so our teams can reach those most in need.

Nariño’s Pacific region is one of several areas affected by renewed violence between armed groups in Colombia. Since the end of 2019, MSF teams working in Nariño have witnessed at least seven mass displacements and four population confinements—meaning people were either forced to flee their homes or villages due to heavy fighting or prevented from leaving by armed groups.  

MSF teams have been treating the consequences of this neglected crisis. The main health needs include gastrointestinal and skin diseases, caused by the poor living conditions and lack of water supply and sanitation services. The impacts of violence and the absence of security make it impossible for people to feel safe. Mental health care needs are huge, and many people experience high levels of stress, worry, and fear. 

MSF teams are trying to assist people directly affected by the escalating conflict but have not received adequate or timely responses from Colombian authorities to grant access. Colombian authorities are also absent from the area. Officials say they do not have authorization from military forces to enter a conflict zone or cite administrative and procedural issues as the reasons for their lack of assistance.

Lack of assistance is common across the region, and fear of reprisals from armed groups has prevented organizations from sending food aid to the people most in need. Ongoing violence in Roberto Payán municipality has displaced about 3,500 people. The first group of people displaced received some food aid, but the second group has not received any assistance at all.

In Magüí Payán, one of the most neglected municipalities in Nariño, approximately 920 people have received no support from the government since fleeing their homes. More than 4,000 people are living in dire conditions in camps around the Telembí River—too afraid to leave.

In the Pacific coast town of Olaya Herrera, more than 680 families spent the end of 2019 in makeshift camps after clashes between armed groups forced them to flee their homes. Nearly half of these families fled to the town center but did not receive any assistance from the government for nearly two weeks. Others displaced in rural areas around Bocas de Víbora and Nueva Balsa only received support from MSF and Mappa Consortium.

Humanitarian assistance needs to be scaled up dramatically to ease the suffering of people living across the region will experience constant emotional suffering.