An innovative project helps 26,000 refugees in northern Ecuador

Briefing Notes, 6 April 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 April 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

An innovative registration initiative has resulted in 26,000 Colombian refugees receiving identity documents in an isolated region of northern Ecuador. For 12 months mobile teams comprising officials from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNHCR staff traversed difficult terrain in northern Ecuador to reach the refugees. Registration is a vital step in the process towards being formally recognized as a refugee. The project is considered a model for Latin America, where the majority of refugees often have to go to towns and cities to be registered.

Known as the Enhanced Registration Project, this joint initiative with the Ecuadorian government was established in an attempt to reach Colombian refugees who fled to northern Ecuador. By using mobile registration teams, the waiting period for a government decision on asylum claims was reduced from several months to just one day. Recognized refugees received an official government document certifying their status as refugees. The cases requiring further analysis received a provisional document confirming their status as an asylum seeker. Without such documentation refugees and asylum seekers lack essential legal protection and access to assistance.

Many refugees have been living in this remote border location for years and were unable to access asylum procedures in urban areas either because of lack of resources and information or because of fear. Without legal status a majority of these refugees became vulnerable and marginalized. Documentation makes a real difference in the lives of these refugees who are now able to move freely in Ecuador and can access health centres, schools and other services. But, this is just a first step and additional efforts are needed to help these refugees to integrate into isolated host communities. The project aimed to reach the most vulnerable, including children, women and elderly.

UNHCR supported the Ecuadorian government in this complex protection and logistical effort that cost over $2 million. As a result of this initiative, the Ecuadorian government and UNHCR have a more accurate picture of the number of Colombian refugees living in northern Ecuador and the needs. This project doubled the number of registered refugees in Ecuador now totaling more than 45,000, 98 percent of them are Colombian. However, UNHCR estimates there could be another 100,000 people in Ecuador who may be in need of international protection.

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Registration

The recording, verifying, and updating of information on people of concern to UNHCR so they can be protected and UNHCR can ultimately find durable solutions.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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