• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

In northern Ecuador, mobile teams bring rights to Colombian refugees

News Stories, 18 February 2010

© UNHCR/S.Aguilar
A Colombian refugee in northern Ecuador shows his new refugee visa. In the province of Sucumbios, mobile government registration teams are completing an asylum process that used to take months in a single day.

NUEVO LOJA, Ecuador, February 18 (UNHCR) Four years after arriving in Ecuador after fleeing her home in neighbouring Colombia, Mariela is feeling more optimistic about the future as the result of a pioneering government programme that has dramatically simplified the process of being recognized as a refugee.

The Enhanced Registration project is run by the government of Ecuador and supported financially and technically by UNHCR. Unique in Latin America, the programme sends teams into remote areas of the country where they interview Colombia asylum-seekers, often making a decision on their refugee status on the same day and then issuing refugee visas.

For 47 year-old Mariela, the refugee visa brings with it a legal status, and the rights that go with it, that she had lacked previously. Married for 18 years to an abusive husband, she now feels able to approach local authorities seeking protection.

"I work from 4 am until 9 pm However, I don't have anything," she said. "My husband handles my money, he handles me. But I would love having something of my own. I wish I could learn something, that's what I want. Before, as I didn't have the visa, I was scared."

Over the past four months, members of so-called enhanced registrations brigades have issued some 11,000 refugee visas to Colombians living in a remote part of northern Ecuador bordering Colombia. The teams carry out interviews, registration and determine refugee eligibility all in a single day. Previously, navigating the regular asylum process could take years.

The project has been underway since July 2009 and has reached thousands of people in need of international protection. Before their contact with the registration brigades most of the asylum-seekers had lived on the margins, lacking a formally recognized refugee status and unable to adequately access public services. In the northern province of Sucumbios, just 5,000 Colombian asylum-seekers were issued refugee visas between 2000 and 2008, a figure the registration brigades have surpassed in a matter of months.

The brigades' successes are due to their ability to reach isolated communities in a region often lacking basic infrastructure such as paved roads and running water and their speed in determining refugee status and issuing the crucial visas.

As was the case with Mariela, asylum claims previously could drag on for months or years due to a lack of resources and the remoteness of the areas where the asylum-seekers live.

Together with her husband and two sons, Mariela fled her home in Huila, a department of Colombia, when an armed group killed their landlord and then threatened the family. After traveling for a week by bus, the family entered Ecuador where the long, slow process of being recognized as a refugee began.

Despite the refugee visas and a legal framework that is more sensitive to the needs of refugees, obstacles remain. Many refugees continue to face difficulties accessing public services due to bureaucracy and lingering prejudices. Deborah Elizondo, UNHCR's Representative in Ecuador, says the challenge now is to build on the success of the mobile registration programme by ensuring refugees and asylum-seekers have effective access to their rights and the protection afforded by the State.

"Thanks to the political will of the Ecuadorian State, protection has been extended to people that remained invisible in the northern border. Undoubtedly, this is a powerful protection tool," says Elizondo. "In 2010, the challenge will be to encourage people to effectively exercise their rights. There will not be immediate solutions, but we will support the efforts of the Ecuadorian government to identify durable solutions".

By Sonia Aguilar in Nueva Loja




UNHCR country pages


The recording, verifying, and updating of information on people of concern to UNHCR so they can be protected and UNHCR can ultimately find durable solutions.


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

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

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

Colombia is the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. More than two million people have been internally displaced during the conflict, including 200,000 persons in 2002 alone. Tens of thousands of other Colombians have sought refuge abroad.

UNHCR provides legal assistance to these internally displaced persons (IDPs), supports their associations and on the national level has helped to strengthen government programmes and relevant legislation. Specialised agency programmes include education, psychological and social rehabilitation projects for children and their families and assistance to women who head households.

Colombia: Assisting the Internally Displaced

Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through AthensPlay video

Syrian refugee carries Olympic torch through Athens

Symbolic gesture intended to show solidarity with the world's refugees at a time when millions are fleeing war and persecution worldwide.
Ecuador earthquake leaves thousands homelessPlay video

Ecuador earthquake leaves thousands homeless

More than a week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador killing nearly 600 people, thousands of Ecuadorans and many Colombian refugees remain homeless. UNHCR is distributing 900 tents and other aid in the hardest-hit areas like Chamanga, a Pacific-coast town where the half the population lost their homes.
Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.