UNHCR in Ecuador helps Colombians fleeing violence in coastal region
SAN LORENZO, Ecuador, August 29 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is working with local authorities, sister agencies and other partners to help hundreds of Colombians who have fled an outbreak of violence in their home areas and sought safety in the coastal Ecuadorean town of San Lorenzo.
UNHCR estimates that more than 1,500 people have left their homes in southern Colombia's Nariño department since August 23 and turned up in San Lorenzo, where they are being registered and housed in eight schools, a church and a municipal centre. About 40 percent of the new arrivals are children.
The displaced Colombians have been given food and medicine as well as non-food items such as mattresses and blankets. To ease pressure on the shelters in San Lorenzo, about 170 of them were moved on Monday to the inland city of Ibarra.
UNHCR has mobilized resources on both sides of the border to address the crisis - a team visited Nariño's coastal town of Tumaco over the weekend to try and find out more about the exodus.
They found a combination of factors pushing people to leave - fear of violence erupting between the armed forces and irregular armed groups. People also indicated they feared that a state campaign to eradicate illegal coca crops could affect them adversely.
The refugee agency has activated contingency plans in Ecuador to deal with the sudden inflow of people from Colombia. These were drawn up after a similar displacement in 2005, when some 800 Colombians sought protection in San Lorenzo, which does not have the resources and infrastructure to handle a large number of unexpected arrivals.
The municipal authorities of San Lorenzo are providing all the resources available to them. Civil Defence forces are also involved, while extra medics have arrived in the town and have been providing free medical attention to the Colombians, including 14 people who were injured in a road accident on their way to the town.
Sonia reached San Lorenzo with her handicapped 70-year-old uncle after fleeing in fear from the riverside settlement of Barbacoas. "We moved to Barbacoas because of violence [in their previous home]. After only a few months the violence started once again, so we decided to come to Ecuador and ask for help," said the 34-year-old Colombian.
Husband and wife Jorge and Liliana were also among the new arrivals, reaching San Lorenzo on Sunday with their three children aged between eight months and 14 years. The pair, who have been displaced many times, said they fled to Ecuador because they feared an outbreak of violence in Mata de Platano, where they were living in Nariño.
They said they would like to request asylum in Ecuador. "As long as I can work and I have legal status, I don't care where we are," said Jorge, who comes originally from the Colombian capital of Bogota.
An estimated 250,000 Colombians have fled to Ecuador to escape the armed conflict at home, making Ecuador the Latin American country with the highest number of people in need of international protection. Yet to date, only 45,000 have registered with the government or with UNHCR, leaving thousands more without legal protection and limited or no access to public services.
UNHCR officials have been in close contact with Colombia's local and national authorities on the matter, discussing measures that would allow voluntary, sustainable returns in conditions of dignity and safety. The agency also supports guarantees for access to asylum procedures in Ecuador.
By Xavier Orellana in San Lorenzo, Ecuador