Ecuador opens first refugee office along border with Colombia
LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador, June 24 (UNHCR) - Ecuador's Directorate General for Refugees has just opened an office in the border province of Sucumbíos, the first state-run facility of its kind to be established outside the national capital, Quito.
President Rafael Correa presided over the opening ceremony in the provincial capital of Lago Agrio last Friday, World Refugee Day. Lago Agrio is located just a few kilometres from north-east Ecuador's border with Colombia.
Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador told guests that the office would help Ecuador fulfil its obligations to refugees and others in need of international protection. Ecuador has the largest refugee population in Latin America, coming mostly from Colombia.
"This is in agreement with Ecuador's commitment to all human rights, a commitment that calls us to welcome any person forced to leave their home country in search of safety and a secure life," Salvador said, adding that the government hoped to soon open more refugee offices along the border.
The new refugee office will provide advice and orientation to registered refugees and other people of concern. Its staff will also conduct interviews to assess the applications of asylum seekers as well as issue documentation.
It will be fully operational as of next month, allowing the UN refugee agency to focus its activities on border monitoring and local integration of refugees, with projects that help both refugees and their host communities.
UNHCR, which has been present in Lago Agrio since 2000, welcomed the opening of the office as a significant step towards strengthening refugee protection. "This new governmental presence will greatly expedite the asylum process and will contribute to improving services and access to rights for the refugee population," said Marta Juárez, the UNHCR representative in Ecuador.
Foreign Minister Salvador also visited UNHCR's Lago Agrio field office, where she thanked staff for their work and commitment to refugees. They will support the running of the Directorate General for Refugees office for the next year.
The northern border region is a relatively under-developed part of Ecuador, and many UNHCR projects aim to foster development as part of an overall strategy for refugee protection. They include bringing sanitation and clean water to remote jungle communities where many refugees live, as well as working with the authorities to improve access to health and education.
There are around 18,000 registered refugees in Ecuador. The government estimates that up to ten times that number - between 180,000 and 200,000 people - may be in need of international protection. Next week, the government is scheduled to present its plans to address refugee issues in the country.