The New York Times
February 10, 2004

Venezuela Decides to Accept Colombians

ARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 9 Venezuela has granted refugee status to Colombians fleeing the conflict in their country in a move that will allow them to be protected and resettled, a United Nations official said Monday.

María Virginia Trimarco, the regional representative of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said the policy shift by President Hugo Chávez's government would make it easier to help thousands of Colombian refugees in the border area.

"It's a very important step forward," she said. "It basically formalizes the regulation of refugee status and the protection which this gives."

In what United Nations officials have described as the most serious refugee crisis outside Africa, tens of thousands of Colombians have spilled into neighboring countries like Venezuela to escape a four-decade-long war waged between government troops, right-wing militias and Marxist rebel groups.

Ms. Trimarco said Venezuela had granted formal refugee status to a first group of 47 Colombians. More than 2,300 more were reported seeking registration.