News Stories, 10 June 2002
QUITO, Ecuador, June 10 (UNHCR) – UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie ended her mission to Ecuador today after spending four days visiting Colombian refugees and taking a closer look at the Western Hemisphere's most severe humanitarian crisis.
"I'm just now starting to understand this very complex situation," said Jolie, who travelled to Ecuador from June 6-10. "People's lives are truly in danger – not just in the sense that you feel your town is unsafe – their lives are actually being threatened and their houses are being burnt down."
Caught in a 40-year internal conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced close to 2 million people, the violence in Colombia is raising regional concerns. Thousands have fled to neighbouring Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, and many thousands more have sought asylum in Costa Rica, North America and Europe.
In Ecuador alone, an estimated 7,000 Colombian refugees and asylum seekers have come seeking protection, with about 300 new arrivals every month.
In the border town of Ibarra, one of the largest refugee reception centres in Ecuador, Jolie met families who had fled from guerrilla and paramilitary violence. Travelling with UNHCR Regional Representative Maria Virginia Trimarco, she also visited a UNHCR-funded carpentry workshop run by refugees and a temporary shelter.
Already familiar with massive refugee operations in Asia and Africa, this was Jolie's first experience in the Andean region. "What was really shocking was that every individual person you meet will tell you that their immediate family was [affected]," she said. "Somebody's child was killed, somebody's husband. Someone was beaten."
After spending the night with UNHCR staff in Ibarra, Jolie visited a community of refugees in Cochasqui, located at the foot of the some of the country's most important pre-Inca pyramids.
The following day she travelled with a UNHCR delegation to the remote jungle town of Lago Agrio, Sucumbíos. One of the main centres of oil production, Lago Agrio is just a few kilometres from Colombia's hotly-disputed Putumayo province – one of the world's biggest coca-growing regions.
As a direct result of the armed conflict, the Ecuadorian government estimates some 10,000 to 12,000 Colombians came through Lago Agrio in 2001. Hundreds have stayed there under UNHCR protection. At the country's largest shelter, Jolie met dozens of women who are growing their own vegetables to generate extra income. She also presented gifts to the children at the shelter while they showered her with laughter, flowers and a poem.
With a population of 12.5 million, Ecuador is the smallest country in the Andes and has generally been immune to Colombia's rebel violence. Jolie said she was impressed and thankful that the country was so open to the plight of its neighbours. According to the government, there are some 225,000 Colombians living in the country.
"The majority of the people of concern to UNHCR are still inside [Colombia]," Jolie said. "There are hundreds of thousands of people in trouble, but because we can't see them crossing [the border], maybe that's why the world isn't talking about it so much."
An Oscar-winning actress who has starred in such movies as Girl, Interrupted, Pushing Tin and Tomb Raider, Jolie has been active with UNHCR for close to two years and has been a Goodwill Ambassador since August 2001. She has met with refugees in Sierra Leone, Namibia, Tanzania, Cambodia, Thailand and Pakistan, and contributed generously to UNHCR programmes.