Q&A: UNHCR team faces urban and rural challenges in Ecuador

News Stories, 26 August 2010

© UNHCR/L.Dobbs
Deborah Elizondo, UNHCR's representative in Ecuador.

QUITO, Ecuador, August 26 (UNHCR) Last month, UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs travelled to South America for a first-hand look at some of the refugee agency's work in Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador, which hosts the largest refugee population in Latin America. The challenge facing UNHCR and its partners in Ecuador is to reach out to these tens of thousands of people who have fled from Colombia and sought shelter in remote jungle areas as well as urban centres in the neighbouring country. UNHCR Representative in Ecuador Deborah Elizondo, who joined the refugee agency 26 years ago and has worked in Asia, Europe and Latin America, spoke to Dobbs in Quito about the operation. Excerpts from the interview:

In Colombia, UNHCR is mainly concerned with internally displaced people. Here in Ecuador, refugees are the issue. Tell us about them.

Most of the refugees in Ecuador come from the Colombian departments [provinces] of Valle del Cauca, Narino and Putumayo. We have an estimated 135,000 people in need of international protection. That number is likely to increase because we are getting more and more asylum-seekers every year. We don't reach them all because some are hiding [in jungle] along the northern border or they are dispersed in urban areas. The largest number of refugees is located in urban areas an estimated 60 per cent. Currently, there are about 56,000 registered and recognized refugees. There is also a backlog of 20,000 to 50,000 people, most of whom applied for refugee status but never went back to the asylum office. This group is being cleared by the General Directorate for Refugees.

You have all kinds of irregular [armed] actors in the northern area. And we hear that in the main urban centres, including Quito and Guayaquil on the Pacific coast, members of irregular armed groups are coming to chase people who escaped from them in Colombia. We have had a few cases of refugees dying in mysterious circumstances. The spillover of the conflict on the northern border raises a number of protection issues.

Who are these refugees?

They are mostly people living in the three departments I mentioned who have probably suffered the loss of a family member at the hands of one or other of the armed groups or been victims of the conflict in other ways. What you get in the northern border is mainly rural people; people who are used to living along the river. They may have left because they had no means to survive in their area because of the presence of combatants. They may have no livelihood because their crops were lost or destroyed. They are poor people. Forty per cent of the caseload [of Colombian refugees in Ecuador] stays in the north because all they know is fishing, surviving off the land on a daily basis. The people along the border include Afro-Colombians, especially on the Pacific coast in Esmeraldas and in Tulcan province. There are also indigenous people who sometimes hold two nationalities . . . The irregular armed groups look for them, for their children, for recruitment or to take them as guides in the jungle.

Those who are a bit more educated come to the big cities, like Guayaquil, where we are trying to establish a presence to assist the government asylum office to provide access to registration. We estimate at least 15,000 people of concern live along the Pacific coast from Guayaquil to Esmeraldas, where we have an office. The moment the government opens an asylum office, it will be swamped with asylum claims because there are many people dispersed in all these areas where we don't have a presence.

So where do we have a presence?

We have our main office in Quito. We also have a field unit in Quito that covers urban refugees in Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil and Santo Domingo de Los Colorados. We have a sub-office in Lago Agrio, a field office in Ibarra and a presence in Esmeraldas, Tulcan, Santo Domingo and Cuenca. We'd like to have a presence in Guayaquil and San Lorenzo, budget permitting. We have 70-80 people, about half of whom are national or international UN Volunteers. We are the main humanitarian agency present along the northern border, so we are very exposed.

What kinds of challenges does UNHCR face in Ecuador?

The protection challenges are amazing here; they go from A-Z. Now, people have access to asylum procedures, but this was not always so because people living on the northern border could not move. They were afraid to leave the area because they would be deported or abused if they were intercepted by the police or the army. They did not have the means to come all the way to Quito or even to Lago Agrio to make an asylum application or seek legal advice. For that, they had to leave their village and pay to take a boat a whole month's salary. So we convinced the government to look at the possibility of an enhanced registration. This meant sending mobile brigades out into the field to register asylum-seekers.

Tell us more about the enhanced registration programme

The enhanced registration was supposed to only target Colombians living in remote areas along the northern border. In practice, we got Colombians living all over Ecuador, especially in Guayaquil. This is when we realized that there was a large presence in Guayaquil at least 5,000 asylum-seekers came from Guayaquil to the north to register. It was a very successful exercise. I was very impressed by the way the whole thing was structured with civil society as observers, psychologists helping people who had been tortured or lost family members.

People were given an appointment for a specific day. The day you arrived for the appointment you had registration, eligibility interview, assessment of specific needs and then the decision of the eligibility commission and documentation all in one day. Those recognized as a refugee were given documentation, including a refugee visa, and included in a census. This was conducted from March last year to March this year. Many people wanted to extend it, many people wanted this to continue on a permanent basis, but we said no because it was a very expensive, if very useful, exercise. In one year, the government teams recognized some 27,740 people as refugees.

It gave the opportunity to these people who had been hiding in remote areas to finally be acknowledged . . . It was fantastic because finally they existed and were granted the protection they had been denied for many years. But, in recognizing so many refugees, we opened a Pandora's Box because recognition is not always the end of it. You have a responsibility as a state to respond to these refugees, in one way by supporting integration policies, ensuring full access to rights, avoiding discrimination and ensuring all kinds of protection activities. And UNHCR needs to support and complement the efforts of the Ecuador government.

This brings us to solutions, including integration and resettlement

From the nearly 52,000 recognized refugees to date, you have 60 per cent in urban areas that means mostly local integration as a durable solution. Not all of them will be resettled. We have a resettlement section here, but it's not very easy to identify who qualifies for resettlement and for that we need the help of NGOs who have access to some of these people in the field.

The main challenge is local integration as a durable solution . . . It's the government's responsibility, but UNHCR is not going to abandon the government after they have recognized so many thousands of people. It's a protection challenge as well as a financial challenge, but it also requires political commitment.

What about some of the other protection issues you deal with?

Effective access to rights is a big issue. You have a refugee card, for example, but the banks don't want to accept it when you go to open an account. Or when you want to get married, they might claim that the card is not valid in Ecuador. We have been working very hard with the government to make the Civil Registry and the banking system understand that this is valid, this is an ID system that is given to refugees. We plan to issue them with cards given to other foreigners in order to avoid these problems as refugees.

The other big issue is exploitation, discrimination. When Ecuador amended the Constitution in 2008 they made it very liberal and progressive. One key new provision allowed nationals of any country in the world to come and stay in Ecuador for three months without a visa. Since then, more and more asylum-seekers from all nationalities have been arriving in the country. Unfortunately the machinery of the asylum office is very slow and it does not have the capacity to prevent abuse of the asylum system. Asylum-seekers come here from other continents and the Caribbean, apply [for asylum] and then disappear [before trying to make their way to North America in mixed migration flows].

It doesn't mean they are not refugees; some of them are refugees and in need of protection. But we have this mix and it creates resentment among the local population. Ecuador used to be a very safe country, but crime has grown in the cities and people often blame it on Colombians or Cubans . . . We now have to fight increasing xenophobia and discrimination, even at schools.

What about our working relationship with the government?

We have very good support on the legal side from the Ombudsman's structure that exists at the national and provincial level . . . At the central level, we have full support. The people in the ministries are very liberal, very human-rights oriented. But this doesn't necessarily translate to effective protection at the provincial level.

Meanwhile, the church is an important partner of UNHCR, especially for monitoring at the border or for providing assistance to people. What we are trying to do is to enhance a protection network in the borders and in the cities though strategic alliances with civil society and the state. We need help, we need partners and we need to engage the UN system in Ecuador more.