South America's forgotten emergency: In Ecuador, the number of Colombian refugees rises every year

In Ecuador, the number of Colombian refugees rises every year. Internal conflict over the past decade has caused tens of thousands to flee there, with Ecuador now hosting over 55,000 refugees and another 90,000 asylum-seekers and people in refugee like situations.  

Robert McDonald, originally from West Kerry now works as the Senior Regional Field Safety Advisor in the country. 

It’s a rewarding role, yet one which is replete with many challenges ranging from the militarisation of borders to the trafficking of women. With no two days being the same it’s also extremely diverse and demands a certain degree of flexibility.

What is the most immediate challenge for UNHCR working in Ecuador?

There are many challenges for UNHCR working in Ecuador. Ecuador hosts the highest number of refugees in Latin America mostly from the Colombia situation (where conflict has rumbled for decades).

While the world and UNHCR continually grapples with emerging new refugee crises there is a danger that the refugee and internally displaced situations resulting from the Colombia conflict may not get adequate funding and recognition.                                                                                                   

There are now over 150,000 asylum-seekers in Ecuador, 56,000 of whom are refugees. How have people in Ecuador responded to them?

The Ecuador community has been an excellent host in receiving their neighbours seeking refuge, many of whom are destitute and often scarred both physically and emotionally. While peace talks are on-going there is no immediate end in sight to the persecution of persons of concern and refugees continue to flow into both Ecuador and Venezuela, or others become displaced internally within Colombia. Meanwhile an increase in militarisation of the borders and an increase in the number of illegally armed actors on both sides of the border put increasing strain on the humanitarian space in which we operate. In addition, increases in xenophobic attitudes, crime rates, trafficking of women, narcotics and other commodities all compound the problems in the border regions and create further challenges to UNHCR’s operations.  

Robert McDonald (right), Senior Regional Field Safety Advisor in Ecuador  © UNHCR

Could you give me a brief description of your day-to-day work?

No two days are similar and I normally devote approximately 50 percent of my time to the Ecuador office as the Field Safety Advisor for Ecuador and the remaining 50 percent as Regional Field Safety Advisor to the other 12 countries in which UNHCR has operations/offices within the Americas and Caribbean.

Security briefings, mission security and analysis account for the vast majority of the workload.  Outside of the Colombia situation our office in Haiti would be one of most concern from a security perspective. The average day could vary between writing a report on security developments and their impact on our operations, to briefing a visiting delegation or even dealing with disaffected visitors to our offices. Co-ordination and liaison between a variety of personnel, including host government security actors, the Americas Directorate in Geneva, and senior UN security officials in Geneva and New York, also forms a core part of the work activities.

Colombian refugees in northern Ecuador at a daycare centre run by the Women's Federation of Sucumbíos with support from UNHCR  © UNHCR/J. Björgvinsson

How long have you been based in Ecuador, and did you have any previous posting with UNHCR? If so, how do they compare?

I have been based in Ecuador for just over three years and this is my first posting with UNHCR. However in the past I have worked with UNHCR while deployed with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). In East Timor I worked as a Military Observer (MILOB) and as the only members of the UN allowed operate on both sides of the East-West Timor border we were proactive in organising reconciliation meetings with refugees and families, co-ordinating cross border refugee returns and assessing the reintegration of returnees.

What attracted you to working with UNHCR? Do you consider it rewarding work?

I have always had an interest in working with the United Nations, however UNHCR was one of the more attractive agencies to work for as it is an agency that in comparison to others operates more deeply in the field and is usually one of the first responders to security and emergency crises worldwide. It is also an agency whereby tangible success in its operations is often quite visible. Work with UNHCR is rewarding but more so in times when it is evident that our operations have made a significant difference to the lives of our beneficiaries. 


This Quechua indigenous woman from Colombia sought refuge in Ecuador where UNHCR got her documented and gave her a kit to build a small house  © UNHCR/MH Verney

Why, in your view, is Ireland's financial support to UNHCR so important?

Ireland’s financial support remains very important to UNHCR. Similar in many ways to Ireland’s contribution to peacekeeping worldwide, the support from a country that has traditionally been perceived as a neutral actor cannot be underestimated. There is no doubt that Ireland’s past financial support to UNHCR over recent years has saved the lives of many thousands and also made the lives of many thousands of others somewhat better. It is evident that worldwide recession has impacted negatively on donor activity, however it therefore becomes of greater importance that donors are contributing to operations and activities that make a tangible and visible difference to the lives of persons of concern.  UNHCR, as one of the most experienced and most proactive humanitarian agencies, is often best placed to provide these operations, many of which can even mean the difference between life and death for the affected communities.   

What do you miss most about Ireland?

Family and friends, the West Kerry pace of life and scenery, and occasionally a certain black liquid that comes in pint glasses and seems not to travel very well abroad.