Ecuador's northern border: Refugee documentation comes to the jungle

News Stories, 17 August 2009

© UNHCR/S.Aguilar
Visa to a family reunion: Colombian refugee Nely shows off her new visa that will enable her to travel freely within Ecuador.

PUERTO EL CARMEN, Ecuador, August 17 (UNHCR) After more than two decades in Ecuador, Nely*, a Colombian woman in her fifties, has finally received her refugee visa. In just one day recently, she got the document that will make her most cherished dream come true: to go visit her 20-year old son, who has been living in the small city of Lago Agrio ever since he suffered a motorbike accident that left him disabled.

Lago Agrio is the largest city in the Ecuadorian Amazon region, 200 kilometres away from where Nely lives inside the Amazon. It's nearly beyond her budget she only earns $35 a month to get there, but the bigger problem up until now has been the lack of legal documents proving her refugee status.

"My house is three hours by foot through the forest from the nearest road," she explained at the documentation centre in Puerto El Carmen. "From there, I would have to pay $20 to go to Lago Agrio but without a refugee visa I would not have been able to get through the military checkpoints."

There are thousands of Colombian people who, like Nely, live in a refugee-like situation along the border without documents. In an unprecedented move, the Ecuadorian government, with technical and financial support from UNHCR, began a large-scale program of enhanced refugee registration.

With local campaigns in some of the most remote areas of Ecuador, the enhanced registration project aims to rapidly grant refugee status to people in need of international protection by certifying their legal status and providing identity documents. It aims to document around 130,000 people countrywide who until now have not had access to the asylum system.

More than 11,000 refugees were registered in Esmeraldas Province in western Ecuador between March and June. Now the project has moved on to the Amazonian province of Sucumbios, along the border with Colombia, a remote area lacking basic services where thousands of Colombians live in a refugee-like situation.

Ecuadorian civil servants and UNHCR staff crossed difficult roads and rivers in the rainforest with heavy and often delicate electronic equipment and computers to reach many previously off-limits areas. The mobile brigades managed to document nearly 2,000 people in the first few days and aim to register thousands more in the next three months.

"The province is right on the border with Colombia and is home to many Colombians fleeing conflict in their homeland," said Luis Varese, UNHCR deputy representative in Ecuador. "The security situation is tense and the impact of the Colombian conflict is strongly felt. The delivery of a visa by the Ecuadorian government reinforces the state presence in the area, which contributes to protecting refugees."

He added that "refugees will now be able to move freely and reach health centres, schools and other services. Documentation makes a real difference in the individual lives of thousands of refugees."

It has certainly put a smile back on Nely's face. Despite all the hardships she has suffered since leaving her home area of Caqueta in southern Colombia, she grinned and waved her brand new refugee card as she left the documentation centre and headed directly for the Puerto El Carmen bus station for Lago Agrio to see her son after years of separation.

By Sonia Aguilar
In Puerto El Carmen

* Name changed for protection reasons

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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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