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High Commissioner Guterres reiterates support for Ecuador; due to meet Colombian leaders


High Commissioner Guterres reiterates support for Ecuador; due to meet Colombian leaders

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is scheduled to meet high-ranking government officials Wednesday in Bogota at the start of a three-day visit to Colombia. He started his tour of the region in Ecuador, where thousands of people have taken refuge from Colombia's internal armed conflict.
14 March 2007
António Guterres meets young Colombian refugees during a visit to areas of northern Ecuador near the border.

QUITO, Ecuador, March 14 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was in Colombia on Wednesday after wrapping up a visit to Ecuador with a fresh pledge of support and a call for international solidarity to help Ecuador cope with large numbers of refugees from Colombia.

Guterres was scheduled to meet with high-ranking officials in Bogota and visit communities displaced by violence before heading back to Europe on Friday. In the Ecuador capital, Quito, he paid tribute Tuesday to the country and people.

"I have seen a lot of examples during my visit of the generosity and friendship that Ecuador is extending to thousands of Colombians who have taken refuge here," he told journalists Tuesday night. "I am now calling on the rest of the international community to take notice and assume its responsibility to help Ecuador in its determination to assist refugees," he said.

Guterres added that the needs were greatest along Ecuador's northern border with Colombia, where he went to meet refugees and local communities on Monday and Tuesday. Around half of all refugees live near the border, one of Ecuador's poorest and least developed regions.

"It is a pleasure for me to visit this part of the country, where there is so much sharing and solidarity between the people of Ecuador and their Colombian sisters and brothers in need of a safe haven," he said on Tuesday in the small border community of Puerto Nuevo.

An estimated 80 percent of Puerto Nuevo's 1,000 inhabitants are of Colombian origin. As in dozens of other towns and villages along the border, they share meagre resources and basic infrastructure with the Ecuadorean population.

"We thank you for your help over the years and for coming to see us today," one refugee told the High Commissioner. "We came to Puerto Nuevo because we want to live in peace. There are many things we need and we are all working together to make life better little by little. But we have peace, and that is the most important thing."

The refugees told their visitor that the whole community had organised itself into small committees to address the most urgent needs: health, education and documentation of refugees.

"It is good that you have got together and are taking the initiative to tackle these problems. We are here to support you," Guterres said, adding that the international community had a duty to help refugees and host communities.

Ecuador is home to the largest refugee population in Latin America; more than 14,000 are registered, while up to 250,000 are believed to be in the country in need of protection but without registration.

Many Colombians who flee to Ecuador do not approach the authorities or UNHCR either because they are scared or because they lack information about their rights. This problem is most acute along the border, where refugees often live in remote communities like Puerto Nuevo with little access to services and few opportunities to make contact with the authorities.

In the past few years, the refugee agency has extended its work at the border to reach out to such isolated villages, aiming to reduce tensions and bolster development through concrete projects that benefit the whole community. Guterres visited several of these projects, including a school for Colombian and Ecuadorean children and a health centre.

During a meeting with President Rafael Correa on Monday, the High Commissioner thanked Ecuador for its generosity and pledged support for the government's peace and development initiatives in the border region. He reaffirmed this commitment to local authorities at the border on Tuesday.

More than 3 million people have been displaced inside Colombia as a result of the decades-long armed conflict between irregular armed groups and the government forces. Accounting for around 8 percent of Colombia's population, they are one of the largest populations of concern to UNHCR in the world.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Quito and Puerto Nuevo, Ecuador