Colombian child rights defender wins UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate 2020, Mayerlin Vergara Perez, pictured on the beach in Riohacha, La Guajira, Colombia. © UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso
This year’s laureate of the Nansen Refugee Award – a humanitarian prize given annually by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – is an educator who has spent more than 20 years rescuing sexually exploited and trafficked children, many of them refugees.
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez, Maye, has dedicated her life to defending children. As the Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the Renacer Foundation she has devoted more than two decades to helping the Colombian non-profit reach its goal of eradicating sexual exploitation and abuse of children and adolescents. Founded 32 years ago, the organisation has assisted over 22,000 child and adolescent survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and survivors of other types of sexual and gender-based violence.
“People like Maye represent the best of us. Her bravery and selfless pursuit to rescue and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children is nothing short of heroic,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“She embodies the essence of this award. Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future,” he added.
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours outstanding service to people who have been forcibly displaced. Over the years, more than 82 individuals, groups or organizations have received the award for their unwavering dedication to refugees and outstanding work on behalf of forcibly displaced or stateless people.
For over 20 years, Maye has gone to extraordinary lengths, often risking her own safety to rescue girls and boys who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. On foot, she combs the streets of remote communities in north-east Colombia where human traffickers and smugglers operate.
Maye leads a team of dedicated staff at the Renacer Foundation in close coordination with the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, a government body tasked with protecting children in the South American nation.
By speaking out against the abuses she has witnessed, she has called on civil society, Colombian authorities, and the tourism sector – which is fertile ground for sexual exploitation and trafficking in the country – to ensure that children and adolescents are protected.
“Sexual exploitation has a huge impact on children, emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially,” said Maye. “We see girls who don’t feel that their bodies belong to them. Their bodies have been so maltreated, so abused, so exploited that they feel alienated from those bodies, as if they don’t belong to them.”
In 2009, Maye’s relentless activism and advocacy helped usher in two landmark pieces of legislation. Law 1329 established a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 14 years in prison for those convicted of aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. While Law 1336 targeted the owners of establishments that allow the sexual exploitation of children on their premises.
Global estimates indicate that millions of people continue to be trafficked every year. Women and girls account for the largest numbers of detected victims.
Refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and internally displaced people are at heightened risk as displacement exacerbates their vulnerability. Conflict acts as an amplifier of pre-existing trafficking practices such as forced child marriages to members of armed groups and creates new demands, like forced recruitment, increasing the supply of potential victims.
Since 2015, the deteriorating situation in Venezuela has forced millions to flee. An estimated 1.7 million have sought shelter in neighbouring Colombia. Desperate to find safety and a better life, Venezuelans have resorted to any means possible to flee the country, with many falling prey to human trafficking networks, criminal gangs, and illegal armed groups that are often active along borders. Women and girls are often forced into sexual exploitation by smugglers to pay for their passage.
According to data provided by Colombian authorities, between 2015 to 2019, the number of victims of human trafficking there increased by 23 per cent. The rise is partly linked to the influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants into the country.
Data from the Colombian government shows that in just the first four months of 2020, authorities had already identified a 20-per cent rise in trafficking involving foreign nationals over the previous year. In over half of cases, sexual exploitation was the ultimate goal of the trafficking.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had severe consequences for the forcibly displaced. The economic impact of the outbreak has left many Venezuelans unemployed and homeless, pushing them deeper into poverty, one of the main drivers of sexual exploitation and trafficking. This coupled with disrupted education has left children exposed to exploitation and abuse. Many children face child labour or child marriage to help sustain their families.
Tight border restrictions to curb the spread of the virus have also forced many desperate people to resort to irregular means of crossing borders in search of safety.
UNHCR is working closely with local and national government institutions to strengthen the assistance provided to Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and to promote their local integration. UNHCR is providing lifesaving assistance in border areas to new arrivals, supporting access to basic goods and services, promoting peaceful coexistence with host communities, as well as access to fundamental rights, such as documentation, education and employment.
“Eradicating trafficking and protecting children from sexual exploitation is not only a legal obligation – it is also a moral one and requires a concerted global effort,” said Grandi. “This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol- the first international agreement on trafficking in persons, and the first real step from the international community to combat it. This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to eradicating this heinous crime.”
About UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award:
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Recent winners include Kyrgyz lawyer Azizbek Ashurov whose efforts helped the Kyrgyz Republic to become the first country in the world to end statelessness; South Sudanese surgeon Dr. Evan Atar Adaha and Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer and mediator from Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria.
The award includes a commemorative medal and a US$150,000 monetary prize generously donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway. In close consultation with UNHCR, the laureate uses the monetary prize to fund a project that complements their existing work.
The Nansen Refugee Award program is funded in partnership with the Swiss Government, The Norwegian Government, the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva and the IKEA Foundation.
The 2020 Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony
The award ceremony will be held virtually on 5 October due to COVID-19 health regulations. Mexican actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Alfonso Herrera, will host the ceremony, which features a keynote speech by bestselling Chilean novelist and former refugee, Isabel Allende. The main musical performance will be delivered by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and world-renowned Afropop music legend and philanthropist 2Baba, from Lagos, Nigeria.
A collective of artists with a refugee background will deliver a joint performance including; Aeham Ahmad, a Palestinian-Syrian pianist, who is best known for his book ‘The pianist of Yarmouk’, JJ Bola, a UK-based poet and former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and María Guzmán and Cruz Miguel Soto Noguera, two dancers from Venezuela.
The ceremony will be closed with a special contribution by Colombian musician and singer-songwriter, Juanes, and Spanish rapper and poet, Nach.