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Large-scale refugee registration project starts in Ecuador

News Stories, 27 March 2009

© UNHCR/X.Orellana
Refugees take part in the Enhanced Registration Project, which got under way this week in Ecuador.

MUISNE, Ecuador, March 27 (UNHCR) A convoy carrying dozens of UNHCR and government officials descended on the tranquil Ecuadorean island of Muisne earlier this week to launch a landmark refugee registration project.

The mobile team of 50 civil servants backed by UNHCR specialists kicked off the exercise on Monday and plan to register and document at least 50,000 Colombian refugees in northern Ecuador under the Enhanced Registration Project.

The project, unprecedented in Latin America, will continue for at least a year and cover every province along Ecuador's border with Colombia. UNHCR is providing technical and logistical help, as well as funding 80 percent of the US$2 million budget with the help of donors.

Ecuador is home to 22,000 recognized refugees, mostly Colombians who have fled conflict across the border in their homeland. However, the government and UNHCR estimate that the real number of refugees could be as high as 135,000.

The importance of the Enhanced Registration Project is twofold: it shortens the waiting period for a government decision on asylum claims from several months to just a few hours; and it takes the asylum process to the field, where many refugees have been unable to access asylum systems in urban areas because they didn't have the resources or because they feared being detained.

On the first day of registration in Muisne, some Colombians said they were afraid that the regularization process could lead to deportations. Nevertheless, more than 200 people received refugee visas in the first three days and were taught about their rights and obligations. As the mobile teams travel in Esmeraldas province over the next few weeks, the numbers are expected to grow as the presence of Colombians is more numerous near the border.

Those carrying out the project were recently hired and trained by the Ecuadorean government and UNHCR. In total, the project required the purchase of more than 40 computers, electric generators, nine vehicles, visibility materials and a implementation of a communications campaign, all procured by UNHCR.

Yolanda, a 37-year-old Colombian, was overwhelmed on receiving her refugee visa in Muisne. "Since we came to Ecuador, we have been working on a farm in exchange for food and a place to sleep. All this time I have felt as if I was in jail, afraid of leaving the house to buy food or to go to parents' meetings at my daughter's school," she said, adding that she now hopes to get a job and bring her oldest daughter from Colombia.

Andres Ramirez, UNHCR's Enhanced Registration Coordinator, commended the transparency and support of the government at all levels. "It is a privilege for UNHCR to support this ground-breaking effort that will change thousands of lives," he said.

By Xavier Orellana in Muisne, 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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Ecuador: Guterres visits Ecuador

UNHCR chief António Guterres visits Ecuador ahead of World Refugee Day and praises the country for hosting refugees.
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Angelina Jolie in Ecuador

Angelina Jolie meets Colombian refugees in Ecuador during her first field visit as Special Envoy of the High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
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Ecuador: Left Behind

People continue to flee to Ecuador to escape violence in neighbouring Colombia. Some have to make tough choices while seeking safety.