UNHCR seeks data on refugees along Ecuador's border
BARRANCABERMEJA, Ecuador, November 21 (UNHCR) - The children of this tiny Ecuadorean village amuse themselves among the ruins of an old army radio tower, which lies rusting on the edge of a ravine in the Amazon rainforest. It's the closest thing the mostly Colombian youngsters have to a playground.
Like the tower, most things in the village are run down or don't work; there is no running water or electricity, while the porch of a wooden house serves as a classroom for children aged up to 11 years.
Barrancabermeja lies just across the San Miguel River from the Colombian region of Putumayo, which has suffered heavily from the country's decades-long internal armed conflict. Fighting between different armed groups has stalled economic activity and traumatized the local civilians, who face threats, intimidation and targeted violence.
People are often forced to flee their homes to escape outbreaks of fighting or direct threats and many seek sanctuary just across the border in riverbank settlements like Barrancabermeja.
"There are about 70 families living here and around 50 of them come from Colombia," Sonia*, an Ecuadorean married to a Colombian refugee, told recent UNHCR visitors, including Director for the Americas Philippe Lavanchy.
"The arrival of large numbers of new families presents both great opportunities and great challenges, especially in a region with its own development needs," Lavanchy said during a meeting with locals such as Sonia on Sunday, a day after crossing the border from Colombia, where he met top government officials.
Part of the challenge lies in obtaining basic information about the size and needs of the local population. Nobody in Barrancabermeja seems to know how many people live here and in the dozens of smaller settlements further up the river.
There is a constant need for information from all sides, and UNHCR runs regular workshops for the armed forces, local authorities and civil society in the region. Its main aim is to reach out to Colombian refugees in remote communities like Barrancabermeja, some of whom have lived in Ecuador for years.
"The pressure on Ecuador's refugee system is enormous because of the high numbers and of the backlog," said Lavanchy, explaining that there could be more than 50,000 Colombians in need of international protection in the northern border region alone.
Even registered refugees can face problems. Sonia met her husband when he sought shelter in the village. Their three children - ages nine months to six years old - are in theory entitled to both nationalities, but none have been registered for birth in either Colombia or Ecuador.
"UNHCR told us the ministry was running a registration campaign in town for undocumented children last week, but we could not go this time," Sonia says. The provincial capital, Lago Agrio, is several hours away by collective transport and when it rains the road is impassable.
What's more, the family is scared of being stopped at army or police checkpoints along the road. As a recognized refugee, Sonia's husband has the legal right to remain in Ecuador, but he is still waiting for refugee documentation from Quito.
Sonia says that without papers in this tense border region, anything can happen. "We had to take our girl to the clinic last year. The police stopped us and said they would send us all back to Colombia next time if my husband still did not have proper documents," recalled Sonia, who fears for her husband and children.
Lavanchy said that UNHCR would soon share with the Ecuadorean government the initial results of a nationwide survey it conducted to get a better estimate of the numbers and needs of the population of concern. He also stressed the agency's readiness to support the government in the implementation of Plan Ecuador, a national initiative for peace and development at the northern border.
"The integration of refugees is obviously a priority for UNHCR, and it is also key to the stability and growth of the region," he said before leaving Ecuador for Argentina on Tuesday.
During his tour of the region, which began in the United States last week and ends in Uruguay on Friday, Lavanchy has called for solidarity with refugees and displaced people in South America in the spirit of the Mexico Plan of Action, which was endorsed in 2004 by 20 countries in the region.
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Marie-Hélène Verney in Barrancabermeja, Ecuador