Refugees open up to Goodwill Ambassador Laport in Ecuador

News Stories, 26 November 2010

© UNHCR/C.Podesta
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Osvaldo Laport surrounded by children in Tambillo, Ecuador.

QUITO, Ecuador, November 26 (UNHCR) Uruguayan actor Osvaldo Laport, after meeting Colombian refugees in urban and rural areas of Ecuador, has said he was struck by how traumatized many of the forcibly displaced people remained and impressed by the generosity and warm heartedness of the Ecuadorean people to those in need.

The Argentina-based television soap star, making his second visit abroad as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, met urban refugees in the capital Quito as well as forcibly displaced Colombians living in remote northern areas of northern Ecuador. The small republic hosts the largest refugee population in Latin America. There are more than 50,000 registered refugees in Ecuador almost all of them from neighbouring Colombia.

In Quito, Laport met a Colombian family preparing to be resettled to Canada. The wife had allegedly been sexually abused before fleeing from Colombia. "In another country, further away from Colombia, we would feel safer and live with less fear," she told him.

Laport also visited UNHCR operations and met refugees in the northern border provinces of Esmeraldas, Carchi and Imbabura, "I was ready to hear difficult stories, but not to confront this terrible fear that the refugees have of recalling the past and, even worse, talking about it," he said when asked about the trip. He was also impressed by, and thankful for, the solidarity shown by the Ecuadorean government and people to refugees.

In the coastal province of Esmeraldas, Laport travelled by boat to reach the Afro-Ecuadorean community of Tambillo, where the inhabitants have opened their doors to Colombian refugees despite their own harsh living conditions. One Colombian woman introduced him to an Ecuadorean couple and said: "They have been like second parents to me. When I came here in nothing but the clothes I was wearing, they made sure I got by."

In the border region of Esmeraldas, there are 22 such communities hosting people in need of protection. Many of these can only be reached by boat and have very limited basic services, including health care and education.

UNHCR has had an office in Esmeraldas since 2008 to help those crossing the border to escape conflict or persecution in Colombia. In the first eight months of this year, an average of 290 people a month asked for asylum. "The concept of protection by presence becomes very real here, and absolutely necessary," Laport noted.

But while Laport was impressed by host communities in the countryside, he also heard about growing tension and discrimination in urban areas. One family in the town of Ibarra in Imbabura province told him they found it difficult to find jobs and had problems with some of their neighbours. "They want us out of here. They tell us to go back to the hell where we come from," claimed one family member.

In Ibarra, Laport also met with a group of female refugees who meet regularly to share their experiences and who support other women refugees in need. One member of this group said she had fled to Ecuador with her husband eight years ago, but left her four children behind in Colombia. She said she can't go back to see her children "because it could put their lives in danger."

Last year, Laport visited UNHCR operations in eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He made an award-winning documentary of that trip and was accompanied by a camera crew during his mission to Ecuador.

By Carolina Podestá in Quito, Ecuador




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Osvaldo Laport

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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.

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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.

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