Ecuador prepares to help Colombians in need of protection
QUITO, Ecuador, February 22 (UNHCR) - A nationwide survey by the UN refugee agency has found that at least 59,000 Colombians are in need of protection after fleeing their country and seeking shelter in northern Ecuador. As a result of the survey findings, the Ecuadorean authorities are working on a plan to provide vulnerable Colombians with quick registration and documentation.
The 59,000 figure, presented in preliminary results of the survey, accounts for about three-quarters of the estimated 80,000 Colombians living in the five northern provinces of Ecuador. The number is likely to rise once data from the rest of the country has been collated and analysed over the coming months.
This initial finding was presented to the Ecuadorean government earlier this month. Some of the Colombians under review arrived a decade ago, others fled the violence across the border in their homeland just weeks or months ago.
The government's plan to provide quick registration and documentation should help people like Sandra, who is typical of those in need of protection in the north.
She arrived in Ecuador three years ago after a paramilitary group killed her father in Colombia. She fled with her younger sister Lilian to Limones, a small town on one of the many islands dotted along the mangrove-lined coast of Esmeraldas province. The two have an elder brother and a younger sister who stayed behind in Colombia. There has been no news from them in a long time.
Sandra and Lilian have not formally asked for asylum: they weren't sure how to go about it and were scared to be sent back. But, like many of their compatriots in Ecuador, although they cannot go back home because of the armed conflict, they need the protection they are entitled to, including education and health care.
The unregistered presence of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of refugees in small and under-developed border communities also challenges the local economy and puts a strain on scant resources. About 10% of the 9,000 people who live in Limones are estimated to be Colombians.
The UNHCR survey has helped to map their presence, so that the government and international organizations are better able to meet their needs. The focus is on a community-based approach, with projects that benefit the local population as well as refugees and make integration easier for all.
In Limones, Sandra is now working in a community restaurant set up by UNHCR to help both Colombian refugees and locals. The project gathers some 90 families in a micro-enterprise called "Familias Solidarias" (Families Together).
"We are providing the structure and the equipment needed to start up the restaurant," said UNHCR staff member, Christian Degasperi. "In return, the project will be a source of food and income for many families and we also hope it will help refugees settle and integrate with the local community."
Most of the participants are women. As a first step, Sandra and her companions have been trained in the basics of management, accounting and marketing. They have also received information about refugee rights in Ecuador.
Sandra has learnt, for example, that she has a right to remain in Ecuador and not be returned to her native country where her life may be in danger. She has married a local Ecuadorean, but the fear of being sent back is still strong. "I don't have any identity documents, so I prefer to stay inside Limones and not take the risk of travelling outside the village and be stopped without papers," she said.
For its part, the refugee agency will open an office in the provincial capital of Esmeraldas next month to help thousands of refugees like Sandra and her sister.
By Xavier Orellana in Quito and Limones, Ecuador