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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 02:28 GMT 03:28 UK
Colombia war leads 1.2 million to leave
Bus after attack by left-wing ELN rebels
Decades of violence have left people without hope

More than 1.2 million Colombians have fled their country over the last five years with no plans to return, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).


The constant stream of people leaving Colombia has been known for many years simply as 'the exodus'

They are seeking to escape the escalating 38-year civil conflict, kidnapping, extortion and unemployment and are causing a brain drain that this battered Andean nation can ill afford.

But these latest figures only reflect people who have left the country legally - those people who can get visas to other countries.

The numbers of poor fleeing the country illegally is unknown but expected to push the number closer to two million, according to customs experts.

Preferred destination

Few Colombians were surprised to hear the latest figures from the IOM.

The constant stream of people leaving Colombia has been known for many years simply as "the exodus".

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
President Uribe faces a tough task

The problem has long been acknowledged as serious - not just that this country of 40 million loses such a significant percentage of the population, but that those that are leaving are the most educated and most needed to get this country back on its feet.

People have lost loved ones to the fighting, lost jobs and, worst of all, lost hope.

So they leave - liquidise whatever assets they can and pack their bags.

The preferred destination is the United States.

Challenge

It now takes nine months to even get an interview for a US visa, such is the crush .

So Colombians are looking at other destinations. Spain, Costa Rica and Canada are now among the favourites.

For the Marxist guerrillas, it is all part of a plan to drive the upper and middle-classes from Colombia, those whom the rebels believe support what they term the corrupt oligarchy that governs the country.

And they plan to keep turning the screws - to continue kidnapping those with money, setting off bombs in the city and undermining the capitalist economy.

And this is the challenge facing the new hardline President, Alvaro Uribe.

He has to give Colombians back their hope, persuade them that the rebels can be defeated, that the economy will grow again and that their children will be able to build a life here.

President Uribe a tough task ahead of him and many Colombians are not going to wait around to see how he fares.


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