UNHCR chief returns to spotlight the displaced in Colombia and Ecuador

News Stories, 22 December 2010

© UNHCR / W. Pinzón /
UN High Commission for Refugees Antonio Guterres visits the UNHCR sub-office in Villavicencio, Colombia where he is briefed on the displacement of the indigenous Nukak community.

QUITO, Ecuador, December 22 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has been visiting Colombia and Ecuador over the past week to assess the situation of millions of uprooted Colombians in the two Latin American countries almost four years after his last visit.

Guterres visited forcibly displaced Colombians in urban and rural areas, met UNHCR staff and held discussions on the protracted displacement situation with top officials of both countries, including Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.

He also called on the international community to ease the burden on Ecuador. "The impact of this humanitarian crisis is little known in the rest of the world and more support is needed from the international community," said the High Commissioner, who flew back to Europe Tuesday evening.

Guterres began his trip last Thursday in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, where he met the President and reiterated UNHCR's support for government efforts to improve the lives and prospects of the country's 3.5 million people registered as internally displaced. The UN refugee agency also assists Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries, including more than 50,000 in Ecuador.

Guterres said he was confident that Colombia's progressive legislation to help the country's forcibly displaced and indigenous people would show real benefits, especially in rural areas where enforcement is often a problem.

He also welcomed the government's plans to return land to displaced farmers and other victims of the violence over the next four years. "It is a very important step to ensure that displaced people can make full use of their citizenship," said Guterres. "UNHCR supports policies aimed at recognition of their rights."

While in Bogotá, the High Commissioner met with a group of internally displaced Afro-Colombians living in a deprived quarter of the Soacha suburb, where 33,500 people are registered as IDPs. UNHCR has a small office in Soacha and has been working there since 2005 to ensure access to education, health care and shelter. The group told Guterres of the discrimination they faced and the difficulties of integrating in urban areas. "We are seen as different because we are displaced and because of the colour of our skin," said one woman, who fled an area on the Pacific coast. "We need help; we are still human beings."

Guterres also visited small communities of indigenous Jiw and Nukak Maku people in the rainforest near the central Colombian town of San Jose del Guaviare. More than 30 of Colombia's tribes are officially recognized as threatened with extinction by the Constitutional Court. Many have fled their ancestral land to escape from illegal armed groups, endangering their way of life and culture.

"We cannot move around any more to look for food, our territory is mined. We are confined and surrounded by illegal armed groups" an indigenous Jiw leader told the High Commissioner. He assured them that UNHCR field staff would continue to work with the local authorities to prevent displacement and to assist their tribes. Guterres also met with IDP families who have fled their villages to protect their children from forced recruitment by illegal armed groups.

In neighbouring Ecuador, Guterres visited urban refugees as well as Colombians living in remote areas of the northern province of Esmeraldas, where UNHCR has a field office. Ecuador hosts more refugees than any other country in Latin America. Sixty per cent of the refugees live in urban areas such as Quito with the remaining 40 per cent living near the northern border with Colombia, a remote region with limited access to public services.

The government of Ecuador has recently noted an increase in the number of people crossing into the country to escape violence and forced recruitment in Colombia.

Guterres praised Ecuador for its generosity in hosting so many refugees, saying it deserved more help. "I appeal to the international community to help refugees and host communities in Ecuador as well as supporting the Ecuador Plan which focuses on local communities and refugees in border areas," he told journalists in Quito on Monday after holding talks with President Correa.

The High Commissioner said the needs were greatest along Ecuador's northern border with Colombia, where he met refugees including people of the indigenous Esperas community who straddle the border.

"More people are coming," said a refugee Esperas leader. "We are hosting our brothers and sisters because their life is not safe anymore. We don't know how we will cope. We have lost our territory and the land we have now is not enough to survive on."

In recent years, the UN refugee agency has expanded its work along the border between Ecuador and Colombia in a bid to reduce tensions between refugees and host communities and to support development.

By Francesca Fontanini in Quito, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

The High Commissioner

Filippo Grandi, who took office on January 1 2016, is the UN refugee agency's 11th High Commissioner.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Waves of fighting in eastern Democratic of the Republic since late April have displaced tens of thousands of people. Many have become internally displaced within the province, while others have fled to south-west Uganda's Kisoro district or to Rwanda via the Goma-Gisenyi crossing.

The stop-start clashes between government forces and renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda began in the province's Masisi and Walikale territories, but subsequently shifted to Rutshuru territory, which borders Uganda.

Between May 10-20, one of UNHCR's local NGO partners registered more than 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Jomba and Bwesa sectors.

The IDPs are living in difficult conditions, staying in school buildings and churches or with host families. They lack food and shelter and have limited access to health facilities. Some of the displaced have reported cases of extortion, forced labour, beatings and recruitment of minors to fight.

UNHCR and other major aid organizations plan to distribute food, medicine and other aid. More than 300,000 people have been forcibly displaced in North and South Kivu since the start of the year, according to UN figures.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

The internally displaced of Iraq

Eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, over 1.5 million people remain displaced throughout Iraq, including 500,000 who live in dire conditions in settlements or public buildings. For these very vulnerable people, daily life is a struggle with limited access to clean water, electricity, heath services or schools for their children. Many families who live illegally in informal settlements are at risk of eviction. Most of the internally displaced fled their homes because of sectarian violence which erupted in 2006 following the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra. UNHCR works with the Government of Iraq on projects such as land allocation; shelter assistance and house reconstruction to try to find long term solutions for the displaced.

The internally displaced of Iraq

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in JordanPlay video

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in Jordan

UNHCR global Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett has recently visited Jordan, where she witnessed the ongoing humanitarian support to people displaced by conflict in Syria.
Ecuador: Earthquake Leaves Colombian Refugees HomelessPlay video

Ecuador: Earthquake Leaves Colombian Refugees Homeless

Many Colombians fled the conflict at home and rebuilt their lives in neighbouring Ecuador as refugees. But when a 7.8 magnitude quake shook the Andean nation's Pacific Coast last month, they were among thousands who lost their homes and now have to start over.
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.