Authorities in Venezuela and Colombia recently intimidated refugees into returning to areas where they may face death.
The organization sent letters Thursday to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Andrés Pastrana urging them to ensure that future Colombian refugees be allowed to remain in Venezuela until their claims are thoroughly reviewed.
"Families have been intimidated into returning to Colombia despite a well-founded fear of paramilitary attacks." said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "This flies in the face of Colombia and Venezuela's legal obligation to protect refugees."
On May 29, forces under the command of Carlos Castaño, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), entered the Catatumbo region of Colombia, detaining and killing people whose names appeared on their lists. Colombia's Public Advocate reported that paramilitaries at a single roadblock killed at least twenty people and abducted up to fifteen more.
As attacks continued, over 600 refugees—most of them women and children—left the village of La Pista for Venezuela. According to international observers in Venezuela, more than 100 said they feared for their lives and wished to apply for refugee status.
Instead, the government of Venezuela transferred them to a National Guard barracks, denying them access to representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian groups. The UNHCR was also barred from a June 11 meeting between Venezuelan and Colombian authorities, who apparently agreed to repatriate the refugees and ignore their asylum claims.
Also on June 11, Venezuelan authorities allowed the Colombian army colonel in charge of the Catatumbo region to speak to the refugees. Witnesses reported that the officer spoke in an intimidating way, suggesting that anyone who did not return or reported collaboration between the army and paramilitaries would be considered a guerrilla supporter.
The families were returned to Colombia despite the continuing paramilitary offensive in the region.
"A policy of intimidating or forcing refugees to return to Colombia without first guaranteeing their security can have devastating consequences," said Vivanco. He cited the 1997 case of the forced return of 300 Colombian refugees from Panamá. Several of the refugees later appeared on death lists and at least one was murdered.
Both Colombia and Venezuela signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees and its later Protocol, which prohibit the refoulement, or forced return, of refugees. The Convention also obligates its signatories to cooperate fully with the UNHCR to assist refugees and ensure their well-being and safety.