UNHCR chief calls for regional response to Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis
At a sports centre in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, refugee and migrant children from Venezuela and Colombia play soccer together with Ecuadorians. Every Saturday afternoon, some 50 boys and girls between eight and 17 years old spend time together performing leisure activities like dancing, drawing or playing sports. In recent months, the number of those coming from Venezuela has swiftly increased and they have become the majority.
“On the field, they are all the same,” says Edith Paredes, coordinator of FUDELA, a non-profit organization working with local and displaced youth to promote inclusion. “They play together, they hold hands, they hug each other.”
Ecuador has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. Some 250,000 Colombians found shelter in Ecuador in the last two decades, fleeing an armed conflict at home.
Since 2015, more than two million Venezuelans have left their country. Some 250,000 Venezuelans have remained in Ecuador. In 2018, for the first time the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers, at nearly 7,000, is higher than Colombians, at 3,800.
"This humanitarian crisis cannot be addressed in an isolated manner."
“I would like to commend Ecuador for its long asylum tradition and for its global leadership in how to manage human mobility,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi during a visit to Quito. “Not all governments in the world are keeping their doors open to people in need. Ecuador and the governments in the region are a good example.”
Grandi was speaking at the conclusion of a one-week mission to South America to assess the humanitarian needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, as well as their host countries, and to discuss possible regional responses.
“This humanitarian crisis cannot be addressed in an isolated manner. It is fundamental to promote a regional response to address all the challenges, particularly on matters like humanitarian needs, legal status, documentation and inclusion,” Grandi added. “UNHCR is committed to increasing its cooperation with governments in the region.”
In Quito, the UNHCR chief met with a dozen Venezuelans who are resuming their lives in Ecuador with the help of local partners HIAS and FUDELA.
Maria* is a 20-year-old Venezuelan who arrived in Quito seven months ago. Back home, Maria was studying for two university degrees: architecture and graphic design. She belonged to a student protest movement.
“They were following me,” she explains. “It became so bad that I had to move to a different home. They were following me wherever I went, sending me messages with death threats.”
Maria’s mother decided they had to leave. Maria had only two hours to pack and they left early the following morning.
In Rumichaca, at the border point between Colombia and Ecuador, it took Maria and her mother seven hours to get their passports stamped. “It was freezing cold,” she recalls. “There were families with babies, trying to protect them from the unbearable cold.”
Everything went much better when they got to Quito. Maria’s mother had already spent some time in the Ecuadorian capital due to her health problems. She has fibromyalgia and osteoporosis and in Venezuela neither her medication nor her therapy were available anymore. In Ecuador, refugees and migrants have access to the public health system.
At first, it was hard for Maria to adapt. “I had never worked before, I had been focusing on my studies,” she says. She felt depressed when she could not find a job and was struggling to continue her studies.
"I am very grateful to Ecuador for opening its doors to me. I feel at home."
The youth programmes at FUDELA helped her find her place. She graduated from their professional training programme, supported by UNHCR, and is now working as a dance teacher. “This has opened other doors to me,” Maria says.
“Everything is going really well, I am very grateful to Ecuador for opening its doors to me. I feel at home.”
An average of 2,600 Venezuelans have entered Ecuador every day in 2018. About 20 per cent of them decide to stay in the country. The rest continue to other destinations like Peru or Chile. Venezuelans remaining in Ecuador are essentially urban: 45 per cent of them have settled in Quito.
Ecuador has also taken a leading role in seeking a regional solution to the increasing number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants arriving in neighbouring countries.
In early September, representatives from 12 Latin American nations met in Quito in a first step to devise a harmonized regional response. A second meeting is planned for the end of November, also in the Ecuadorian capital.
“If we really want to help governments sustain their support, we have to mobilize other kinds of resources, not only humanitarian,” stressed Grandi.
“We have to help governments strengthen their health and educational systems, establish measures that encourage employment of local communities. I hope the second meeting in Quito will be a good moment to take stock and plan ahead.”
* Name changed for protection reasons