UNHCR chief returns to spotlight the displaced in Colombia and Ecuador
QUITO, Ecuador, December 22 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has been visiting Colombia and Ecuador over the past week to assess the situation of millions of uprooted Colombians in the two Latin American countries almost four years after his last visit.
Guterres visited forcibly displaced Colombians in urban and rural areas, met UNHCR staff and held discussions on the protracted displacement situation with top officials of both countries, including Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
He also called on the international community to ease the burden on Ecuador. "The impact of this humanitarian crisis is little known in the rest of the world and more support is needed from the international community," said the High Commissioner, who flew back to Europe Tuesday evening.
Guterres began his trip last Thursday in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, where he met the President and reiterated UNHCR's support for government efforts to improve the lives and prospects of the country's 3.5 million people registered as internally displaced. The UN refugee agency also assists Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries, including more than 50,000 in Ecuador.
Guterres said he was confident that Colombia's progressive legislation to help the country's forcibly displaced and indigenous people would show real benefits, especially in rural areas where enforcement is often a problem.
He also welcomed the government's plans to return land to displaced farmers and other victims of the violence over the next four years. "It is a very important step to ensure that displaced people can make full use of their citizenship," said Guterres. "UNHCR supports policies aimed at recognition of their rights."
While in Bogotá, the High Commissioner met with a group of internally displaced Afro-Colombians living in a deprived quarter of the Soacha suburb, where 33,500 people are registered as IDPs. UNHCR has a small office in Soacha and has been working there since 2005 to ensure access to education, health care and shelter. The group told Guterres of the discrimination they faced and the difficulties of integrating in urban areas. "We are seen as different because we are displaced and because of the colour of our skin," said one woman, who fled an area on the Pacific coast. "We need help; we are still human beings."
Guterres also visited small communities of indigenous Jiw and Nukak Maku people in the rainforest near the central Colombian town of San Jose del Guaviare. More than 30 of Colombia's tribes are officially recognized as threatened with extinction by the Constitutional Court. Many have fled their ancestral land to escape from illegal armed groups, endangering their way of life and culture.
"We cannot move around any more to look for food, our territory is mined. We are confined and surrounded by illegal armed groups" an indigenous Jiw leader told the High Commissioner. He assured them that UNHCR field staff would continue to work with the local authorities to prevent displacement and to assist their tribes. Guterres also met with IDP families who have fled their villages to protect their children from forced recruitment by illegal armed groups.
In neighbouring Ecuador, Guterres visited urban refugees as well as Colombians living in remote areas of the northern province of Esmeraldas, where UNHCR has a field office. Ecuador hosts more refugees than any other country in Latin America. Sixty per cent of the refugees live in urban areas such as Quito with the remaining 40 per cent living near the northern border with Colombia, a remote region with limited access to public services.
The government of Ecuador has recently noted an increase in the number of people crossing into the country to escape violence and forced recruitment in Colombia.
Guterres praised Ecuador for its generosity in hosting so many refugees, saying it deserved more help. "I appeal to the international community to help refugees and host communities in Ecuador as well as supporting the Ecuador Plan which focuses on local communities and refugees in border areas," he told journalists in Quito on Monday after holding talks with President Correa.
The High Commissioner said the needs were greatest along Ecuador's northern border with Colombia, where he met refugees including people of the indigenous Esperas community who straddle the border.
"More people are coming," said a refugee Esperas leader. "We are hosting our brothers and sisters because their life is not safe anymore. We don't know how we will cope. We have lost our territory and the land we have now is not enough to survive on."
In recent years, the UN refugee agency has expanded its work along the border between Ecuador and Colombia in a bid to reduce tensions between refugees and host communities and to support development.
By Francesca Fontanini in Quito, Ecuador