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Case Studies

Refugee children in Ecuador, like this girl in Lago Agrio, experience acute vulnerabilities, particularly in the border provinces. UNHCR reports that refugee children in border provinces have few opportunities to pursue secondary education. (Shaina Aber — JRS/USA)
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Case studies from the Refugee Council USA report Living on the Edge: Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador


All doors are closing in Panama: The RCUSA delegation met with a Colombian woman who had been in Panama City for three years with her two young children. Her family received refugee status and she has a work permit, but she has been unable to find any sustainable means of supporting her family due to the discrimination she faces each time she applies for a job. Her husband tragically died in a car accident in Panama, and the family of the man in the other car is now threatening her. She is forced to depend on charitable support in order to survive, and noted that even though her family was forced to flee Colombia because of violence, they have been unable to find security in Panama. Refugee status has not given them any protection, and they remain alone, with no real support.

No help for Colombians: An Afro-Colombian man told the delegation that in Colombia his family experienced kidnappings three different times before they fled the country. He has been in Panama City for two years but has not yet received refugee status. He has no work permit and no job and has turned to the church for occasional assistance with shelter and food. He is deeply depressed by his inability to find a job, because he very much wants to support himself.  He believes that refugees, in spite of their many skills and professions, are seen as people with no talents. He continues to feel that he is in physical danger in Panama City, but he also knows that he can’t return home. He feels helpless and is unsure about what he should do.

Desperate, Anguished, Alone: An Afro-Colombian woman with three children told her family’s story. It took eight days to leave Colombia and arrive in Panama City. Even though they received refugee status, she feels alone and desperate. She passed a note to one of the delegation members that said that refugees are desperate, used and abused. Her family continues to face real threats as a result of being Colombian. Panamanians say that her family is made up of drug dealers, and one of her children was stabbed four times when coming home from school. She went to the police, but no investigation is underway. There are days when she thinks it is actually less safe, less secure in Panama City than it was in Colombia. 

There are no jobs for women: A young mother with PTH status spoke to the delegation members who went to the Darien region. She arrived in Panama in 1999 with her family, but her parents have since returned to Colombia. She is now raising her seven year old daughter and her two year old son on her own. She first became pregnant when she was 16 years old, and the father of her daughter is a border policeman who still lives in Jaque, but provides no assistance to the family. She very much wants to work, but there are no jobs available for women in the community. She is occasionally able to find small cleaning jobs, and that helps her get food for herself and her children, but it is not enough to survive. Her little boy has medical issues that she can’t attend to in Jaque, but she hasn’t been able to send him to Panama City to receive the care that he needs.


If they hear your accent, they say "no jobs": One young man told the delegation that he arrived in Quito with eight family members eight years ago. HIAS is now helping him with a scholarship so that he can study Technology and Tourism. In spite of the rare opportunity to receive any form of higher education, he still finds it extremely difficult to live in Quito as a Colombian. He faces constant discrimination and feels very isolated. He doesn’t feel that he can mix with local Ecuadorians, and at one point, a petition was started to kick him out of his neighborhood. His mother brings in a modest income by selling bathing suits at the local swimming pool, but even that small amount of money has caused Ecuadorians to be envious. They accuse his mother of taking their work, and he has been unable to find employment, because he doesn’t have the right connections and because when potential employers hear his accent and learn he is from Colombia, they consistently tell him that no jobs are available. 

It is one thing to have a law, but there is no reality: One Colombian refugee woman told the delegation that most Colombian refugees cannot get ahead in Ecuador. She recognizes that life in Ecuador is hard even for many Ecuadorians, but it is harder for Colombians. Life is so difficult in Ecuador, that she knows many people who have returned to Colombia and were never heard from again. For example, her friend's husband went back to Colombia and was later murdered in his mother’s house. She worries about the safety of her children in Quito. She fears that gang members are trying to recruit her daughter into a gang, and there is no police support to help keep her family and the Colombian community safe. She knows that Ecuador has laws that are designed to help Colombian refugees, but the reality is that the laws haven’t helped them live safe and dignified lives.

There is no place in Colombia you can live in peace: The delegation met with an Afro-Colombian woman in San Lorenzo who had arrived with her husband and two daughters four months ago. Her husband is unemployed and she does sewing for Manos Amigas. Since they arrived in July, they were forced to move three times and now live in a fishing shack suspended over a sewage-filled river. Her family left Colombia because of the escalating violence in her community. In Ecuador there is no work and her family is often hungry, but she said they will not return to Colombia unless they are thrown across the border. In Ecuador, there is no gun fighting and she doesn’t have to worry about stray bullets killing her or her family members. 

An impossible choice: The delegation met with a 24 year old Colombian refugee woman in San Lorenzo. She and her two very young children lived in one small dark room and had just arrived less than a month prior to our visit. Before she arrived in Ecuador, she was forced to move several times in Colombia in order to avoid the guerrillas. In Colombia she was able to find domestic and restaurant work, but now that she is in Ecuador, she has no job and doesn’t leave her home. This young woman was diagnosed with throat cancer and does not have access to the medical care that she desperately needs. HIAS has offered to move her to another location in order to receive more advanced medical attention, but she has made the difficult choice to stay closer to the Colombian border. She made this decision because she also has an eight year old son still in Colombia, and she wants to stay as close to him as possible, with the hope that he too will be able to cross the border and reunite with his family.

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