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Colombian Refugees in Ecuador

Prostitution is a major and legal industry in Lago Agrio. The town is full of brothels and prostitution bars - 85 have been legally certified for operation by the Ecuadorian government. Colombian women report being forced into survival sex and prostitution; indeed about half of the women working in the brothels are Colombian. (Shaina Aber — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ecuador has the largest population of recognized refugees in all of Latin America, totaling about 50,000 – 98% of whom are of Colombian origin. UNHCR believes that 135,000 to 160,000 individuals are in need of international protection in Ecuador, with the number of Colombians seeking refugee status climbing yearly. While the central government in Ecuador has taken significant steps to recognize Colombian refugees, address a growing backlog of refugee applicants, improve its outreach to refugee communities, and enshrine a refugee rights framework into domestic law, refugees still tend to lack effective access to the most basic of rights, and Colombian refugees too often find that their physical security is threatened within Ecuador’s borders.    

Refugee Recognition and Enhanced Registration

Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have fled over the border into Ecuador in the last decade, in search of refuge and new lives in a country still struggling to meet the needs of its own citizenry.  Despite this tension, in 2009, the Ecuadorian government had the highest refugee recognition rate in the region, granting asylum to 66% of the refugees who apply through the normal asylum procedures.  Ecuador is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the Cartagena Declaration – which expands the refugee definition to include persons displaced by generalized violence – and the newly minted Brasilia Declaration on the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

The regular asylum procedures consist of a cumbersome process that the Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman finds problematic.   Ecuador requires a refugee applicant to request an interview before the Director General for Refugees (DGR), a government office that sits within the Ministry of the Exterior.  The refugee applicant must then wait 3-8 months depending on the backlog and his/her place of residence before receiving an asylum interview with a government official.  During this period , the asylum seeker is given a renewable identification card that expires every 3 months, which is clearly marked with the words “asylum applicant.”    From filing for an interview to receiving a final decision, a refugee may wait as long as two years. In 2009, Ecuador’s Director General for Refugees took the extraordinary step of dedicating substantial resources to a refugee recognition campaign aimed at bringing Colombian refugees living along the 586 kilometer-long Northern border out of the shadows, granting them legal status and a renewable refugee visa.  This innovative year-long "Enhanced Registration" process, supported in its implementation by UNHCR and NGO partners, doubled the number of recognized refugees in the country, processing and granting recognition to refugees the same day they were interviewed. The process was generally thought to be a great success; 27,740 refugee residents of isolated Ecuadorian border communities were recognized by the special mobile brigades using expedited recognition procedures. 

The process did have its limitations, however.  The Ecuadorian government decided to make the refugee visa valid for only one year.  This meant that nearly as soon as the year-long mobile brigades had concluded their work, the government had to begin processing requests for renewal of the refugee visas they had issued at the beginning of the process.  The Ecuadorian government also failed to institutionalize a permanent presence for the General Directorate for Refugees throughout the border provinces, and thus new influxes of refugees in the border region face long waiting periods before receiving an interview with the government ministry that considers their claims.  Finally, the registration campaign was carried out without a companion integration program, drawing refugees out of the shadows only to abandon them to face the effects of a rising tide of xenophobia, rampant joblessness in the border provinces, and increased visibility inherent in the refugee documents which clearly identify the holder as a refugee.   

Protection Risks: Physical Security Threats, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Xenophobia

 "The conflict in Colombia has increasingly spilled over to Ecuador and civilians are trapped between the FARC, ex-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and the Colombian and Ecuadorean armed forces… The Ecuadorean military is not well equipped to deal with the situation, and as their relations with citizens have soured, their reliance on abusive tactics to obtain information has increased…. The level of impunity for all types of killings in Ecuador is shocking. For every 100 killings, only one perpetrator is actually convicted." UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, Statement to the Press, July 2010

The security situation in border provinces in Ecuador, and even in the Ecuadorian interior, is increasingly characterized by many of the same elements typically identified with the Colombian armed conflict.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombian paramilitary groups have imbedded in border towns in Ecuador, carving up territory and terrorizing both the local and refugee populations as they traffic in drugs, arms, and people.  The Ecuadorian Army has responded to this threat to its national sovereignty by sending tens of thousands of troops to the Sucumbios Province in Ecuador, which borders Colombia’s Putumayo province.  As the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions indicated, the increased Ecuadorian troop presence has failed to improve the security situation in the border provinces, which are inhabited by large refugee populations.  In fact the Ecuadorian troops have been implicated in a number of human rights abuses and targeting of Colombian refugee populations – who they equate with the Colombian armed actors - as they struggle to address a security situation that is rapidly spinning out of control. 

Refugees are particularly vulnerable in this environment and are likely to come into contact with the same irregular armed groups that spurred their displacement in Colombia.  Nonetheless, many refugees – especially those who were farmers in Colombia – are reluctant to move away from border provinces, having learned from members of the community who left and returned that xenophobia is more pronounced in the Ecuadorian interior, livelihoods are scarce, and few opportunities exist for those who have no training outside of subsistence farming. UNHCR and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) have assisted in the relocation of several hundred refugees in the last year in response to threats to their physical security and pursuit by Colombian armed groups.  Relocation does not always resolve security issues.   Our delegation was informed of a number of cases in which refugees were targeted by their Colombian persecutors after internal relocation in Ecuador.

The Situation for Women Refugees in Ecuador

The situation for women refugees in Ecuador, especially for female heads of households, is particularly troubling.  Over fifty percent of women refugees are between 18 and 35 years of age, according to UNHCR.  Many of these young women entered Ecuador fleeing violence that had claimed the lives of their spouses, fathers, brothers and companions.  The Women’s Federation of Sucumbios paints a foreboding landscape for refugee women and girls. The Federation reports that sexual and gender-based violence is rampant, and trafficking is commonplace in the border county of Lago Agrio. A full 80% of the female population reports experiencing gender-based violence. A recent UNHCR study in the Lago Agrio area with 700 refugee women found that 94.5% have experienced sexual and gender-based violence throughout their lives.1

Prostitution is a major and legal industry in Lago Agrio. The town is full of brothels and prostitution bars - 85 have been legally certified for operation by the Ecuadorian government. Colombian women report being forced into survival sex and prostitution; indeed about half of the women working in the brothels are Colombian. In recent months, several of the NGOs in the area have helped refugee women escape the trafficking rings that prey on refugee women and girls. Last year when a newly appointed superintendent of police, a woman brought in from outside of Lago Agrio, tried to close several brothels that were engaging in the prostitution of minors, she was assassinated. A dearth of legal services and complicity on the part of local authorities in the culture of violence presents challenges for women seeking justice and reparations.  Local authorities appear to have no interest in prosecuting cases of domestic violence and sexual assault in Lago Agrio, and indeed some local authorities, including police, and members of the military have been implicated in gross cases of sexual and gender based violence.

The Women’s Federation of Sucumbios described one such case in which a refugee woman was arrested by the Ecuadorian Police in Lago Agrio for supposed intoxication.  She was found dead in her cell the next morning.  The coroner’s office issued a report that the woman had suffered a cranial fracture. However, she had contusions on her arms and breasts, and that there was evidence of sexual assault.  When it became clear that the only people who had access to her cell were three Ecuadorian police officers, the coroner changed his report, saying the woman had committed suicide, and the police were exonerated of any wrong-doing.  Refugee and host community women who have experienced gender-based violence, trafficking and domestic violence have few resources upon which to depend.  There are only five women’s shelters in the entire country for housing women whose physical security is in peril.   According to Asylum Access, even in the capital, the legal system fails to protect women who cannot present forensic evidence to substantiate a claim of sexual assault.  The prosecutor’s office in Quito fails to pursue cases where DNA evidence is not present.  While the Ecuadorian central government launched a campaign to prevent Sexual and Gender Based Violence in December of 2010, without justice system support and local government cooperation, the campaign may fail to improve the conditions facing refugee women who are among the most vulnerable and marginalized sectors of Ecuadorian society.

The Situation for Refugee Children in Ecuador

Refugee children also experience acute vulnerabilities, particularly in the border provinces.  UNHCR reports that refugee children in border provinces have few opportunities to pursue secondary education.  Of the 43 communities that border Colombia in the Province of Sucumbios, 42 have primary schools but only two have secondary schools.  Refugee parents also identified fear of forced recruitment of their children as a major security concern in border provinces.  One refugee mother approached our delegation to ask if we knew of a way to get her daughter out of the border town where she had, against all odds, finished high school, “I need to get my daughter out of this town. She just turned seventeen and I’m afraid that if I can’t get her to a better place, into a university or higher education, she will fall prey to bad things, bad people.”

Unaccompanied refugee minors regularly appear at the door of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and UNHCR in Lago Agrio.  Some of these children are fleeing forced recruitment by armed groups; others were trafficked across the border by the same groups and sold to the local brothels.  At the time of our visit to Ecuador, there were no shelters that had adequate facilities to protect and assist unaccompanied refugee youth.  As a result unaccompanied children were often placed in centers reserved for “street children” juveniles who had committed legal infractions.

Lack of Civilian State and Civil Society Presence in the Border Region

The poor protection environment is exacerbated by the lack of civilian state presence on the border, an absence of international humanitarian and development actors other than UNHCR, and the economic underdevelopment of border communities in general. UNHCR’s work therefore is unsupported by a comprehensive U.N. approach to the blossoming crisis. Asylum Access, JRS and HIAS are among just a handful of international NGOs supporting UNHCR’s efforts to assist and provide protection for the refugee population in the region. The central government’s funding scheme also contributes to the lack of resources in border communities.  Resources are doled out to provinces in accordance with the census estimates of the number of resident citizens in a particular province, leaving provinces with large numbers of resident refugees struggling to support a population that does not calculate into the central government’s resource equation. 

Likewise the Mayor’s office in the border town of San Lorenzo in the Esmeraldas province reported that the town is over-stretched by the influx of Colombian refugees.  Said one official in the Mayor’s office, “The refugees are our Colombian brothers.  The first five families that started our town were Colombians.  We are Colombian-Ecuadorians….  We don’t reject them, but we have needs.  Refugees come with a mindset of violence and drugs.  It has affected us.  Our basic services are stretched.  Water is the biggest problem.” The resultant dearth of resources in provinces fosters attitudes of discrimination against the refugee population as the host community fights to hold on to the limited means at their disposal.

Discrimination and Xenophobia

A recent study of Colombian refugee populations living in the urban centers of Quito and Guayaquil, released on December 14, 2010 by the Latin American Faculty on Social Sciences in Ecuador (FLACSO, by its Spanish acronym) found that 97.3 % of refugees interviewed had experienced incidents of discrimination simply for being Colombian.  The FLACSO study confirmed anecdotal accounts by refugees that the police and employers are central figures in acts of discrimination and xenophobia. 

The situation of Afro-Colombians and Colombian single-women-headed households is particularly grim in Quito, where stereotypes abound concerning these two groups.  All Afro-Colombians interviewed by the delegation reported the near impossibility of finding work in Quito. Afro-Colombian men reported that they are targeted, harassed and at times arbitrarily arrested and detained by Ecuadorian police even after they have received refugee recognition. Colombian women are popularly perceived as “loose women” or “prostitutes,” and report a disproportionate incidence of sexual harassment, exploitation, and rape. Colombian women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based-violence and have fallen victim to trafficking rings and survival sex as well, a fact noted by UNHCR, NGOs and by the Vice-Minister of Human Rights and the Human Rights Ombudsman.  One recognized Afro-Colombian refugee interviewed by the delegation in Quito reported constant harassment and threats, particularly by police, who have stopped him on multiple occasions to search him for drugs and guns.  On one such occasion the police removed him from a bus and asked him for his wallet and his documents.  The authorities then required him to remove his shoes. “They took my money, and made me walk home shoeless.” Another refugee, a woman, complained of constant job discrimination.  “If you are a Colombian woman, you are a prostitute. No one wants you in their houses.  Not even to clean.  The constant rejection has been very hard.” 

Durable Solutions

Due the security situation in Colombia, the continued displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombians annually, and the ongoing internal armed conflict, UNHCR has determined that voluntary repatriation is not an appropriate durable solution for Colombian refugees at this time.  Local integration and resettlement of the refugee population are therefore the appropriate alternative durable solutions for this refugee population

Local Integration

The rising insecurity in border provinces and the strain on social services including education, health, and water, and other infrastructure have presented difficulties for the local integration prospects of regions that have traditionally received large refugee influxes.  Funding for local integration projects from the international community has been scarce and UNHCR and NGO partners have engaged in limited micro-finance projects to assist Colombian refugees to move toward self-sufficiency.  Rampant discrimination, and the resultant lack of access to the banking system and the job market in the Ecuadorian interior provinces has also contributed to lack of local integration prospects for persons holding refugee visas, as noted by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office in a 2010 report. 

Access to employment, housing, healthcare and education are central to ensure the successful integration of Colombian refugees. The international donor community should support livelihood  programs, assisting UNHCR and local development organizations to offer micro-credit loans for refugee collectives interested in engaging in small business opportunities.  In San Lorenzo, the delegation met with two refugee/host community women’s cooperatives that have had some success in creating livelihood opportunities for their members. Manos Amigas (loosely translated as Friendly Hands) is one such organization that has received support and capacity building from UNHCR and JRS over the last three years.  They produce merchandise to sell to sports teams and dance troops in the community and have had achieved a small productive business through this effort.  Another refugee/host community collective in Lago Agrio, ASOPMICEO, has formed a community-based micro-loan program with a small grant from an Ecuadorian government development institution (FAS-Ecuador).  These burgeoning projects that benefit both host communities and refugees represent important steps towards integration and self-sufficiency for refugees and should be expanded with the support of the international community and the Ecuadorian state. 

Finding dignified housing has also presented persistent difficulties for the majority of refugees.  Landlords often charge exorbitant rents for Colombian refugees, and raise rents arbitrarily, forcing refugees to relocate on multiple occasions.  In San Lorenzo, the delegation visited one refugee family living in a shack that was precariously suspended over sewage.  The refugee inhabitants paid $30 a month for the one room shack and struggled every month to scrape together enough money to meet the landlord’s demands.  While the government of Ecuador has developed an initiative aimed at supporting the improvement of infrastructure and social services in border areas, this plan has received little in the way of donor community support.

Ecuador’s naturalization laws may offer hope for encouraging integration of large numbers of Colombian refugees as well.  After three years of legal residency in Ecuador refugees may be eligible to begin the naturalization process.  Unfortunately the process is complicated, extremely costly and currently nearly impossible for Colombian refugees to access.  However, a naturalization initiative that focused on lowering costs for refugees, and offering pro-bono services for those who apply, may be an important mechanism for breaking down legal barriers to integration, particularly in the banking and credit sector.


For some Colombian refugees, resettlement to a third country is the only option to achieve adequate protection.  Our delegation noted that the Ecuadorian government has consistently stated that though it sees refugee recognition as a priority, it lacks sufficient capacity and resources to support the growing number of Colombians seeking sanctuary within its borders.  Resettlement for Afro-Colombians, women-at-risk, persons with serious security concerns, unaccompanied minors, and others with a lack of local integration prospects is an urgent and continuing necessity. Unfortunately interest by the international community in supporting the strategic use of resettlement appears to have declined in recent years,  even as the number of Colombian refugees requiring this durable solution has increased.  Ecuador currently ranks second in the world on UNHCR’s list of resettlement needs versus resettlement capacity. 

UNHCR has estimated that 15,944 Colombians are currently in need of resettlement, and set a goal to resettle 4,644 Colombians in 2010, a goal that fell short by 3,643 persons. The United States accepted only 57 Colombian refugees for resettlement in fiscal year 2009 and only 123 in fiscal year 2010, despite its stated intention to accept 300 refugees of Colombian origin in these fiscal years. While 2010 saw a slight increase in the number of Colombian refugees admitted to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, challenges remain.  For example, in sharp contrast to other regions in the world where large numbers of refugees are in need of the durable solution of resettlement, the United States relies on an understaffed Virtual Overseas Processing Entity that only assisted 310 refugees in fiscal year 2010, creating further barriers to the growth of the resettlement program and to addressing challenges in the processing cases. Another challenge is evident in the rapidly changing dynamics of the Colombian conflict and the lack of continuous and vigorous training among the USCIS officers who make the eligibility decisions.  U.S. officials may be making adverse credibility findings based on faulty information no longer relevant to the current conflict dynamics.  UNHCR must now dedicate numerous staff hours to provide the background information necessary to put forth successful referrals to U.S. officials.

The Solidarity Resettlement program of the Mexico Plan of Action is of particular importance as a regional solidarity and responsibility-sharing mechanism. Colombian refugees who face protection risks in Ecuador have been referred to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and more recently to Uruguay and Paraguay over the last several years. While these countries have extremely limited capacity for absorbing resettled population, the Solidarity Resettlement program has become an important protection tool for UNHCR-Ecuador.  UNHCR points out the coming years will be crucial for the establishment of reception capacity and local integration schemes in these countries. Experience gained from resettlement programs elsewhere, particularly the United States and Canada, will be of great importance in making the new programs a success.

UNHCR-Ecuador’s inadequate human resources and budgetary capacity has limited their ability to engage in Best Interest Determinations for unaccompanied refugee minors, robust livelihood projects, and larger scale resettlement referrals for vulnerable refugees at risk in Ecuador.  Despite the doubling of the recognized refugee caseload in the last year, the budget allocated to address the needs of refugees in Ecuador remained at the 2009 level of only $10 million.  Donor support that focuses on a more robust international presence, strengthening the justice system, integrating and naturalizing Colombian refugees where appropriate and relocating and/or resettling the more vulnerable refugees should be a priority in the coming year.

[1] “El 70% de los refugiados colombianos está en Ecuador” Hoy, October 20, 2010,

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