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Micro-credit schemes unite Colombian refugees with Ecuadorian hosts

News Stories, 29 December 2005

© UNHCR/S.Eguez
Colombian refugee Jairo Martinez stacks the shelves in preparation for the opening of a shop in Ecuador that was funded under an unusual group micro-credit scheme.

QUITO, Ecuador, December 29 (UNHCR) Jairo Martinez is stacking the shelves of a brand new shop in Quito's Solanda neighbourhood as quickly as he can with rice, sugar, oil, pasta and a few sweets for the children. Outside, colleagues are decorating the shop's entrance with balloons and colourful garlands under the watchful eye of the local residents.

For Jairo Martinez, a Colombian refugee who arrived in Ecuador two years ago, the shop's opening is the realisation of a long-held dream. "When you come to a new country, the question of how you are going to make a living is constantly on your mind," he says. "Any help is a blessing, but it is much, much better if you are given tools to build something through your own efforts," he concludes just as the doors of the Integration for Progress shop open to the public for the first time.

Like many of his fellow refugees, Jairo Martinez made every effort to adapt to his new life in Ecuador from the first day he arrived a tall order when experiencing not only the trauma of losing everything, but also the prejudices and mistrust that often confront refugees in their host countries.

Spurred on by his desire to integrate as quickly as possible, Jairo soon signed up with the Community Credit Banks, a project set up jointly by UNHCR and the Fundación Ambiente y Sociedad (FAS) to provide loans for both Ecuadorians and refugees. The idea behind the Community Credit Banks is to help people bring their business projects to fruition, while at the same time encouraging harmonious cohabitation between refugees and Ecuadorians as a result of working together towards a common goal.

The project gave Jairo the chance to secure an income for himself. Equally, if not more importantly, it also stimulated an environment that encouraged him to share his concerns and ambitions with other Colombian refugees and also with local Ecuadorians.

"The Community Credit Banks make it possible for Ecuadorians and refugees to relate to each other," explains UNHCR's Programme Assistant Angel Granja. "By putting forward joint projects they realize they have the same needs, regardless of their nationality. Each group has to build a relationship of trust. It's the only way they can gain support for their projects."

The Integration for Progress shop is proof of what can be achieved when 35 people, all of whom had already succeeded in financing their own individual projects, decide to apply themselves to a collective goal. For 18 months, they worked as a team and received training from the Fundación Ambiente y Sociedad in accounting, administration and marketing. All their learning and experience was needed to get their new business off the ground from the design of the premises and the purchase of supplies, to the management of funds and customer service techniques.

The shop is located in the Solanda neighbourhood of Quito, where large numbers of Colombians have settled in recent years. It is Quito's most crowded neighbourhood, and one of its poorest, with high crime rates and a shortage of basic services.

"We cannot blame foreigners for all our difficulties," says Nube Rivera, President of the Committee for Improvement of Solanda. "We can only improve our lives if everyone participates Ecuadorians and Colombians. We must be united, and in order to unite we must push ourselves to overcome mistrust. With the opening of this shop, we have a new opportunity to get to know each other even better, through our daily lives."

More than one hundred projects have received funding so far from the micro-credit system small businesses such as making and selling handicrafts, fast food, carpentry and furniture-making, among many others. One of the main goals for the coming year is to encourage more collective proposals like the one in Quito, turning the initiative into an example for other groups around the country supported by the Community Credit Banks project.

"Right now, we are planning seven more projects, including a bakery and an internet café, but we want to wait and see how the shop goes first," says Jairo Martinez. "Our greatest ambition is to become a savings and credit cooperative bank. However, what we need is to include more partners with a will to improve things and move forward."

By Salomé Eguez in Quito, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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