UNHCR opens information centre for Colombians on Ecuador border
TULCAN, Ecuador, May 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency, in cooperation with the Ecuadorean authorities, has opened an information centre on a key border crossing point to inform Colombian refugees and migrants about their rights while in Ecuador.
During Thursday's opening ceremony at Rumichaca International Bridge, which links south-west Colombia and northern Ecuador on the Pan-American Highway, Pedro Velasco, mayor of the nearby city of Tulcan, said the information centre would allow UNHCR and the government to help those Colombians who needed it most.
"Thousands of people cross this border every year, fleeing from the internal conflict in neighbouring Colombia. We want to be the first to provide guidance and support to these victims who arrive in dire need of help and solidarity," Velasco said.
The bridge is the major crossing point between Ecuador's Carchi province and Colombia's volatile Nariño department. Every year, an estimated 150,000 people use it to cross into Ecuador, including migrants and refugees fleeing violence and persecution in Colombia.
Many of the latter may not know that they can apply for asylum in Ecuador, but the information centre will provide them with information about their rights, including the right to apply for asylum.
"The main problems are lack of knowledge about the existence of an asylum system, people's fear of coming forward, or the concentration of refugees in isolated areas where services and information are scarce or non-existent," noted Marta Juárez, UNHCR's representative in Ecuador. She added that while there are an estimated 180,000 Colombians in Ecuador who have fled their own country, only 16,000 have been formally granted refugee status.
Juárez was among guests at the opening of the information centre, located in premises formerly used by Ecuador customs officers. UNHCR will provide printed information material and audio-visual equipment for the office, which will be manned by two municipal employees trained in international refugee law and related subjects.
Several Colombian refugees also attended the ceremony. They included José, who has been living in Tulcan for the past three years. "This will be a great opportunity for people who arrive from now on because they will be able to know about the possibilities that Ecuador offers," he said, adding: "They will be able to learn that it is possible to request asylum in this country where I have found freedom and optimism."
Susana, who arrived in Tulcan a year ago and has since been recognized as a refugee, also welcomed the opening of the centre, saying it would help other people to gain refugee status. "Thanks to the refugee visa and to the goodwill of the Ecuadorean government, my two children and I know that we are safe."
By Andrea Escalante and Xavier Orellana in Tulcan, Ecuador