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2020 Nansen Refugee Award spotlights child survivors of sexual exploitation

Colombia. Youth worker becomes Nansen Refugee Award Laureate 2020.

2020 Nansen Refugee Award spotlights child survivors of sexual exploitation

Mayerlín Vergara Pérez has spent decades helping rehabilitate survivors of childhood sexual exploitation. Around half of those she now serves are Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
5 October 2020
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez receives the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award medal in Riohacha, Colombia, during a virtual ceremony.

A Colombian woman who spent decades working to heal children and teenage survivors of sexual violence and exploitation tonight accepted the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award at a special ceremony, calling the prize a “recognition of their strength, courage and endurance.”

As coordinator of a rehabilitation home in north-eastern Colombia for children who have been rescued from bars, brothels or the streets or removed from abusive homes, Mayerlín Vergara Pérez works not only with Colombian-born kids but also with boys and girls from Venezuela who were forced into sexual exploitation as they fled the ongoing crisis back home.

Speaking via a video link from Colombia, Vergara Pérez dedicated the prize to those she serves, saying the Nansen Refugee Award “also belongs to the children and adolescents whose ability to dream inspires us to continue believing that it is possible to build a society free of human trafficking.”

“This award is a recognition of their strength, courage and endurance,” she said, adding, “it has been a privilege to accompany hundreds of them with their emotional recovery.” While the Nansen Refugee Award is usually presented in a glittering ceremony in Geneva, where the United Nations Refugee Agency has its headquarters, this year’s event was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, with participants across several continents interacting via videoconference.

“Maye works literally day and night to save young children from the hands of ruthless abusers.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called Vergara Pérez, who goes by the nickname Maye, a “guardian angel.”

“Maye works literally day and night to save young children from the hands of ruthless abusers that prey on their innocence and vulnerabilities,” Grandi said. “Her tireless efforts over decades to search out, rescue and gain the trust of young victims of exploitation have meant that hundreds are now safe and have a chance to become a child again and rebuild their lives.” 

Such luminaries as UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and the famed Chilean novelist Isabel Allende honoured this year’s laureate through video messages, as did the Colombian superstar Juanes, whose video for the song “Pasarán,” or “They Will Cross,” about migration and displacement, also featured in the ceremony. Mexican actor Alfonso Herrera, who was recently named a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, acted as master of ceremonies.

In her acceptance speech, Vergara Pérez stressed that sexual exploitation is a “hidden tragedy,” adding, “We know that the official statistics are only a small part of what is happening.”

Trafficking and exploitation thrive amid conflict, insecurity and displacement, and people who have been forced to leave their homes find themselves particularly exposed to both risks.

While the underground nature of trafficking and sexual exploitation make it hard to grasp the full extent of the phenomena among displaced populations, it is clear that both are major issues facing many of the five million Venezuelans who have fled food and medicine shortages, inflation and widespread insecurity in recent years. 

“We know that the official statistics are only a small part of what is happening.”

Colombia, which is hosting some 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans, has reported a spike in trafficking cases that is thought to be linked to the influx from the neighbouring country. The first four months of 2020 saw a 20 per cent increase in the number of non-Colombian trafficking victims, compared with the whole of 2019, according to data from the Colombian government.

In 2018, Vergara Pérez and other members of the Fundación Renacer team went on a weeks-long reconnaissance mission to Colombia’s La Guajira region, along the eastern border with Venezuela. They were horrified by what they saw: hundreds of children and teens were either already being sexually exploited or at considerable risk. Around half of them were Venezuelan refugees and migrants. The team knew they had to act.

Vergara Pérez volunteered to spearhead the founding of a rehabilitation home in the region – one of only three such homes in all of Colombia. Since it opened its doors about a year and a half ago, the home has served more than 75 survivors of sexual exploitation – some as young as age seven.

In a congratulatory message, Angelina Jolie said she had been deeply impressed by Vergara Pérez when she visited the Fundación Renacer’s home in La Guajira as part of a mission to Latin America last year.

“I have seen the absolute difference you have made in their lives by finding ways to free them, helping them to overcome their trauma and their pain and by valuing them as they deserve to be valued and giving them hope for the future,” said Jolie, who has served as UNHCR Special Envoy since 2012.

Vergara Pérez is the latest in a long line of everyday heroes to be honoured with the annual award, named after the first High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. A live stream of the ceremony is available on the UNHCR’s YouTube channel.