Canada can help peace in Colombia by taking in more refugees: UNHCR - InfoNews

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Canada can help peace in Colombia by taking in more refugees: UNHCR

June 01, 2016 - 1:30 PM

OTTAWA - As Canada continues to settle thousands of Syrian refugees, the UN's refugee agency is hopeful Canada will renew its commitment to another population — Colombians.

More than 17,000 Colombian refugees have arrived in Canada over the last ten years seeking a safe haven from the five decades of war in that country.

The current agreement between Canada and the UN to resettle 900 Colombians currently in Ecuador expires at the end of his year.

The UN refugee agency's acting representative for Colombia says a new agreement would make sense, since helping vulnerable Colombians is key to that country's peace process.

Martin Gottwald is in Canada this week to brief those who decide asylum claims on the state of peace talks in Colombia.

He says the situation for the millions of displaced people and refugees remains precarious even with those talks, and finding solutions for them remains a priority.

The Colombian government is currently negotiating to end over 50 years of conflict with armed guerilla groups, the largest of which is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The ongoing battles have seen 6.7 million displaced inside the country and about 360,000 recognized refugees are living mostly in surrounding countries.

Up until 2011, the Canadian government allowed Colombians to request asylum in Canada while still living in Colombia, but that program has ended, shifting the majority of refugee resettlement to either the private sector or through direct negotiations between Canada and the UN's refugee agency.

Gottwald said it is not his job to negotiate a new resettlement deal with Canada, a responsibility he says rests with his superiors and the Canadian government.

But one would be welcome, he said during a phone interview from Toronto.

"It would make sense, because finding solutions for Colombian refugees will be a huge contribution to the peace process," Gottwald said.

"If more slots were to open up, that would certainly help a lot."

Canada is seeking to resettle nearly 60,000 refugees this year, a historic figure thanks to the commitment to bring more than 25,000 Syrians to Canada.

Pushing the total higher will allow more room for refugees from everywhere, the department said in its 2016 immigration levels plan, though whether that will mean more Colombians remains to be seen.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister John McCallum was unavailable for comment.

In addition to Colombians settled directly from abroad, over 700 Colombians made their own way to Canada and sought asylum in Canada last year, according to government statistics, up 21 per cent from the year before.

It is the people who make the decisions on those claims that Gottwald is in Canada to brief, as he seeks to remind them that the peace talks are only the start of a long process and violence has been escalating in Colombia in recent weeks.

Gottwald said the enormity of the Syrian refugee crisis — over 4 million people have fled that country — can often dwarf the realities facing refugees in other parts of the world.

But if there's a silver lining in Colombia, he said, it's that the conflict is at least inching towards resolution.

"It's now or never that we can do something for Colombia and giving solutions to refugees and (internally displaced people) is one way," he said.

"We can show the world, yes, it's still possible to put an end to conflicts."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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