UNHCR chief visits Ecuador ahead of World Refugee Day

News Stories, 19 June 2012

© UNHCR/E.Leon
High Commissioner António Guterres meets an Afro-Colombian refugee near Guayaquil.

QUITO, Ecuador, June 19 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres returned to Ecuador at the weekend and pledged to continue working to ensure the rights of the largest refugee population in South America.

Making his third visit to Ecuador for UNHCR, Guterres met urban refugees from Colombia and discussed the challenges they face including problems with documentation during his visit to the port of Guayaquil and to the capital, Quito. He also attended a bicycle jamboree in the city's Carolina Park, which was organized as part of events for World Refugee Day (June 20) to show support for a "socially committed, inclusive and non-discriminatory" Ecuador.

In Guayaquil, the High Commissioner met female Afro-Colombian refugees who had fled violence in southern border areas of Colombia. They told Guterres that their main concern was obtaining an identity document, which would change their life by enabling them to access basic services and exercise their rights.

"I came here because of the violence in my country. I did not have any choice. Here I am safe, but I am having difficulties with the refugee cards," said a 30-year-old woman. She claimed that this document had not been recognized by the government and she could not work. "My two children cannot go to school and I can't open a bank account."

Others said they faced discrimination as women or because they were Afro-Colombian. "My girl doesn't want to go university anymore," another woman told Guterres, adding that she been taunted with sexist slurs by other students. About 70 per cent of the 56,000 registered refugees in Ecuador are women or children.

Guterres condemned such behaviour and stressed: "We must join forces politicians, responsible media and civil society organizations and all the people to make a firm stand against xenophobia and racism."

The High Commissioner also told the Colombian women that UNHCR was still learning how to work in urban contexts, although more than half of the world's refugees now live in towns or cities rather than camps. "It is only a year since we opened our office in Guayaquil and we are aware that more and more refugees are coming to cities," he said.

Guterres also pledged that "UNHCR will continue working with the Ecuadorean government to ensure good implementation of the legal framework for protecting refugees or to bridge the gap between the legal framework and the reality."

At the cycling event in Quito, Guterres also visited a food, music and handicrafts fair, where Colombian refugees and Ecuadoreans displayed their products. "We have come here to work and to give our families a better life," said one vendor. "My children were not safe in Colombia, but in Ecuador we all feel safe."

High Commissioner Guterres, lauding the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic event, stressed the need for tolerance and the benefits of diversity. "It is important for tolerance to prevail, for people to learn to live together and understand that diversity is wealth," he said.

Before wrapping up his visit, the UNHCR chief visited a shelter for refugee women who have been the victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). He said UNHCR placed a priority on countering SGBV.

"To ensure protection for women, it is important to work with governmental and civil society institutions, and also to empower refugee women," said Guterres. The High Commmissioner left Ecuador on Monday for Brazil, where he will attend the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.

By Francesca Fontanini and Andrea Durango in Quito, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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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