Government of Ecuador opens first refugee office at the border
President Rafael Correa this weekend opened Ecuador's first Government Refugee Office along the border with Colombia. Ecuador has the largest refugee population in Latin America, coming mostly from neighbouring Colombia.
The new office of the Directorate General for Refugees is the first of its kind outside the capital, Quito. Located in the northern city of Lago Agrio, just a few kilometres from the border, it will provide advice and orientation to refugees and other people of concern. Its staff will also conduct interviews to determine the eligibility of asylum seekers applying for refugee status, as well as issue documentation.
UNHCR, which has been present in Lago Agrio since 2000, welcomed the decentralization of the Government Refugee Office as a significant step towards strengthening refugee protection in the country. UNHCR will support the running of the centre for the next year.
The refugee centre will be fully operational as of next month, allowing UNHCR to focus its activities on border monitoring and local integration of refugees, with projects that help both refugees and their host communities. During the governmental visit to the northern city, Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador also visited the local UNHCR field office, where she thanked staff for their work and commitment to refugees.
The northern border region is a relatively under-developed part of Ecuador, and many UNHCR projects aim to foster development as part of its overall strategy for refugee protection. They include bringing sanitation and clean water to remote jungle communities where many refugees live, as well as working with the authorities to improve access to health and education.
There are around 18,000 registered refugees in Ecuador. The government estimates that up to ten times that number - between 180,000 and 200,000 people - may be in need of international protection. Next week, the government is scheduled to present its plans to address refugee issues in the country.