Surge in Colombian asylum seekers in Ecuador
The number of Colombians seeking asylum in Ecuador continues to surge, with over 5,100 asking for protection in the first four months of 2003. This is more than four times the number of new asylum seekers for the same period last year, when 1,193 Colombians asked for asylum in Ecuador.
The upsurge coincides with a deterioration of the conflict in Colombia, particularly in the border areas. The Colombian department of Nariño, which borders on Ecuador, has seen a marked increase in fighting since January with intensified clashes both among the various irregular armed groups in Colombia as well as between these groups and government forces. The fighting has also caused an increase in internal displacement in Nariño itself, with people fleeing from rural areas to urban centres. Displacement within urban areas and from one urban area to another has also increased. The situation is reportedly worsening as well in Putumayo, also bordering on Ecuador, and in Caqueta, the department next to Putumayo further inland in Colombia.
In Ecuador, UNHCR is supporting the government to deal with the increased number of new arrivals, providing training and equipment to government officials dealing with asylum requests and helping to fund additional government staff to cope with the applications. Since February 2003, a new identification document system for asylum seekers and refugees has been implemented by UNHCR in coordination with the Ecuadorian government.
UNHCR has also deployed two additional staff to Ecuador and is working together with the Church, Red Cross, Fundación Fabian Ponce and other organisations in Ecuador. In the border zone itself, UNHCR staff travel throughout the area, monitoring border crossings, identifying new arrivals and assessing their needs. UNHCR implementing partners provide assistance to asylum seekers such as health care and emergency kits for particularly vulnerable families. UNHCR and its partners have established five reception centres in the border area to provide temporary shelter to new arrivals. UNHCR is also supporting the refugee-hosting communities to facilitate integration of the refugees and asylum seekers.
The number of Colombians seeking asylum in Ecuador has increased markedly over the past three years, from just 413 applications in 2000 to 4,275 in 2001 and 6,270 in 2002. In all, since the beginning of 2000, over 16,000 Colombians have sought asylum in Ecuador. During the same period, 4,225 asylum seekers have been granted refugee status by the Ecuadorian government.
The increasing numbers of asylum seekers have led to a significant backlog in processing requests that both the Ecuadorian authorities and UNHCR are addressing. This is an ongoing challenge than requires increased numbers of processing officers and / or reviews of existing procedures.
UNHCR appreciates the ongoing efforts and generosity of Ecuador to receive the asylum seekers fleeing the violence in Colombia and to ensure that those in need of protection can remain in safety. While UNHCR has obtained support for the Ecuadorian operation from donors, the increasing trends and the emerging needs of refugees mean more will be needed.