The United Nations urged Venezuela on Monday to prevent human rights abuses of Colombians being deported from the country, including the separation of children from their parents, in a simmering border crisis between the two neighbors.
Venezuela closed several major border crossings and deported nearly 1,500 Colombians last month in what it says is a crackdown on smuggling and crime along the shared border.
Fearing deportation, another 15,255 Colombians have fled their adopted homeland to Colombia in recent weeks, many crossing rivers and bridges with their belongings on their backs, according to Colombian government figures.
"I am disturbed by the recent collective deportation of more than one thousand Colombians from Venezuela," said Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his opening statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He said the deportations had involved rights violations such as a lack of due process, the destruction of property and the separation of children from their parents.
"I urge the authorities to take immediate measures to guarantee family reunification and to prevent further abuse of Colombians."
In a poor neighborhood called La Invasion in Venezuela, the homes of Colombians, many of whom have lived for decades in the country, were marked "D" for demolition before security forces knocked them down last month, TV footage from Reuters showed.
The dispute has caused a diplomatic row between President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government and the center-right administration of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia.
Critics say Maduro playing the nationalist card before a December parliamentary election.
The government said it is tackling gangs on the border who wreak violence and drain Venezuela's recession-hit economy by trafficking subsidized goods from flour to fuel, but the families deported have said they are not criminals.
Maduro has smarted at accusations of abuses, pointing out Venezuela was providing a home to 5.7 million Colombians — in a country with a population of around 30 million — who had fled Colombia's war and economic hardship in past decades.
In the city of Cucuta on the Colombian side of the border, 3,000 Colombians who have fled Venezuela are living in makeshift shelters and tents provided by the government, and another 4,000 are living with friends and families in the city.
"Cucuta can only support the deportee crisis for another three months ... We can't handle a bigger burden," said Mayor Donamaris Ramirez, in a recent interview with Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper.
Foreign ministers from the two nations met on Saturday in Ecuador to try and smooth the way for the two leaders to meet and resolve the diplomatic spat and border closures.