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Colombian refugees face stark choices

Colombian refugees in Panama who are not lucky enough to find their way to the ghettos of Panama City, and instead cross by land into the Darien Jungle, are confined to the border towns of Jaque, Yape, Puerto Piña, and Boca de Cupe, which have been described as "prison villages" by international observers.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Shaina AberAssociate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, gave the following speech during an Urban Refugee Forum sponsored by Refugee Council USA at the Senate Visitor Center of the U.S. Capitol on March 15, 2011.

(Washington, D.C.) March 18, 2011 — During years working on behalf of Colombian refugees I have heard a refrain that I think typifies the urban refugee experience around the world and that was repeated to me most recently during a  trip with a delegation of other Refugee Council USA members visiting the town of Jaque in the Darien Jungle region of Panama.  A clear-eyed refugee woman — a mother of four — in her early 30s who had lived in Panama for 10 years told us, "I fear return, after all we lost, of course I fear return, and my husband will not go back, but these are the choices we are forced to make." 

As I said, I’d heard it before, the impossible choices facing refugees living on the edge between starvation and survival, whose prospects for local integration in cities and towns in the region surrounding Colombia have become so grim, depravation of the most basic assistance and access to rights so substantial, that they consider returning to possible death at the hands of their persecutors over the continued neglect and assaults on their human dignity that they suffer in their countries of refuge.  During an interview I conducted several years ago, one recognized refugee, a Colombian gentleman who was a teacher in his home country, encapsulated the situation of far too many Colombian refugees when reflecting on his experience as a homeless and jobless refugee, surviving virulent discrimination and xenophobia in Quito, Ecuador. "Our choice is no choice at all. We are caught between the bullet and the street. Both will land you in the coffin."

Jesuit Refugee Service is operational in Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador and within Colombia itself. Our offices in these countries provide emergency assistance, legal and psychological services, vocational and rights-based training and general accompaniment and protection to the Colombian refugee and IDP populations.

I wanted to start by bringing the voices and stories of two Colombian refugees to the table.

The first is Esteban (not his real name) an Afro-Colombian man who I met several years ago in Panama City. A truck-driver from Medellin by trade, he’d been targeted by paramilitaries in Colombia who kidnapped him and commandeered his vehicle, tortured and threatened him before he was able to escape. He journeyed home to his wife and children but paramilitaries tracked him down and murdered his wife and his son while his daughter cowered under a bed. He fled Colombia and entered Panama City with his eight-year-old daughter, applied for asylum and was told he was not eligible to enter the refugee recognition process. Having presented himself to the authorities, he feared deportation, and thus went underground, living in one of the most violent sectors of Panama City, Curundu, an area controlled by gangs that even the Panamanian police fear to enter. 

When I met him, Esteban’s little girl had reached puberty and he was afraid to let her go outside to play, because of she had been followed home by large groups of men on several occasions. He earned money by doing odd jobs but said he usually went to bed hungry, giving most food he could afford to his little girl. He has no legal status and his child hasn’t attended school since she was eight years old.  

Panama has the lowest refugee recognition rate in the region, granting status to only 2% of the refugees who apply. They deny entry to the refugee recognition process for refugees persecuted by non-state actors, and display little willingness to address their broken asylum system. State sponsored integration and protection mechanisms are nonexistent and sexual and gender-based violence is a persistent and unaddressed concern. It bears mentioning that Colombian refugees in Panama who are not lucky enough to find their way to the ghettos of Panama City, and instead cross by land into the Darien Jungle, are confined to the border towns of Jaque, Yape, Puerto Piña, and Boca de Cupe, which have been described as "prison villages" by international observers, due to the extremely restricted rights, limited access to material assistance and the absence of freedom of movement. These confined refugees have neither the benefits of camp-based service nor the opportunities afforded in many urban settings.

I’d like to introduce the story of another Colombian refugee, a young woman who I will call Gabriela, who I interviewed in Quito, Ecuador in 2008.  Like many Colombian refugees in Ecuador, she came from a rural farming region of Putumayo, which is still very much in the middle of the war.  Her family had fled the war on two different occasions in her youth, but had lived in relative peace for the 6 years when a group of FARC guerillas invaded her family’s farm.  They murdered her brother and her father, but Gabriela escaped and headed south, crossing over the border into Ecuador. When she entered Ecuador, she had no idea what a refugee was, she simply knew she couldn’t return home. Not far from a border town, she encountered a friendly face, a man who greeted her and who reminded Gabriela of her brother. Desperate for a friend she disclosed her story to the man, and he told her he knew of a place where she would receive help.  The man kidnapped her, drugged her and locked her in a room and proceeded to prostitute her for some time. 

Gabriela recalled that many of her "clients" wore the uniforms of the Ecuadorian police. At some point Gabriela was able to wave down a neighbor who came to her aid and freed her from the nightmare. She traveled to Quito, the capital, and approached UNHCR not long after her escape, and was recognized as a refugee eight months later by the Ecuadorian authorities. She struggled with complex trauma, alcohol abuse and depression, and shook whenever she encountered Ecuadorian police. Even as a recognized refugee, living in Quito, she was unable to find a way to support herself.  When she applied for work cleaning houses, she was called a whore and told that Colombian women belonged in brothels.

While the Ecuadorian government has put into place the most proactive and progressive asylum system in the region - granting refugee status to about 60% of the refugees who apply - physical security for refugees and access to legal rights and the labor market remains elusive for many. The Ecuadorian Human rights Ombudsman has decried near blanket denial of access to the banking system for refugees, a critical gap as refugees seek to open their own businesses.  Sexual and gender-based violence is rampant in urban areas near the border and many refugee women are forced to resort to sex-work in order to survive.  

A recent study conducted by UNHCR in the Lago area with 700 refugee women found that 94.5% have experienced sexual and gender-based violence throughout their lives. Local authorities appear to have no interest in prosecuting cases of domestic violence and sexual assault in the border town of 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. In recent years, the Colombian conflict has spilled over the border into Ecuador, dramatically affecting the safety of both the refugee population and the host community. 

More than 500,000 Colombians have fled to countries in the region. Most of these people have not come forward to officially seek asylum for fear of deportation or discrimination, or because they are not aware of asylum procedures. Colombian refugees in urban settings encounter a number of obstacles in their efforts to access protection, solutions, livelihoods and services. They are often confronted with a range of risks including secondary persecution by Colombian armed groups that seek their targets in countries of refuge, the threat of arrest and detention by local authorities, refoulement, harassment, exploitation, discrimination and inadequate shelter.

Latin American nations have been grappling with refugee protection in non-camp settings since before the term "Urban Refugee" became common parlance in the humanitarian community. The largest Colombian refugee populations are in Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Costa Rica, all of which are signatories to the Refugee Convention, the Cartagena Declaration, and the Mexico Plan of Action, the latter of which specifically recognises the challenges to provision of services and local integration unique to refugees living in urban settings. This progressive and integrated plan, signed by 20 Latin American countries in 2004, demonstrated that Latin American nations were in many ways ahead of the curve when it came to thinking strategically about how to integrate and protect urban refugee populations – in large part because camp settings do not exist in the Colombian refugee context. The Plan of Action called for a "Programme to Strengthen National and Regional Protection Networks" through a three-part plan that included the implementation of Solidarity cities, solidarity borders, and solidarity resettlement programmes. The solidarity cities programme called for:
1) Fostering the generation of sources of employment for refugees and the host community,
2) The establishment of micro-credit systems;
3) Setting up mechanisms for the expedited issuance of documents
4) Simplifying procedures for recognition of diplomas issued abroad
5) Mechanisms for the participation of civil society and UNHCR in designing, implementing, monitoring and improving integration projects.

The Mexico Plan of Action appealed to leaders across Latin America to engage in responsibility-sharing mechanisms to ensure effective refugee protection encompassing the enjoyment of social, economic, legal and cultural rights, through the implementation of public policies, within an integrated social strategy, in light of the very real fact that the socio-economic situation in the countries facing the largest flow of Colombian refugees presented significant challenges in meeting the basic needs of the local host community population.

The plan also called for technical cooperation of United Nations and civil society organisations, and the financial support of the international donor community. Despite the forward thinking intentions of the Mexico Plan of Action it has been difficult to put the plan into practice. The significant gaps in funding for UNHCR in Ecuador, Panama and in Venezuela in 2010 affected UNHCR’s capacity to support the governments’ efforts to establish and run efficient RSD systems. Likewise, income-generation and community-based activities that would promote the integration of urban refugees had to be curtailed. Many believe the failure to link development and refugee aid has heightened the risks for the refugee population, placing them in competition with the most destitute sectors of the host community for jobs, shelter, education, and water resources.

While Panama and Venezuela's efforts appear to have fallen short in part due to lack of political will, Ecuador’s central government put considerable resources into its burgeoning asylum system in recent years, registering and recognising about 55,000 Colombian refugees, implementing national legislation aimed at codifying refugee rights, and initiating Plan Ecuador to develop infrastructure and civilian state presence in the border provinces that host 40 percent of the refugee population. Unfortunately these efforts by the Ecuadorian state have been met with a silence and inattention from many in the international donor community. UNDP, UNFPA, UNIFEM and UNICEF and large international NGOs are notably absent in border towns just as the spill-over effects from the Colombian conflict have heightened the insecurity of the refugee and host community alike.

UNHCR's growing presence in Ecuador, its support of the efforts of the central government, its establishment of beneficial working relationships with mayors, municipal governments, churches, and non-governmental organisations like Jesuit Refugee Service and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, stand in sharp contrast to the lack of engagement by its UN counterparts.

On the RCUSA delegation to Ecuador, we were struck by the frequent theme of abandonment. The Ecuadorian government officials we met with had expected robust international support for Plan Ecuador and other refugee integration initiatives.

"We are alone," one official complained.

Refugee-run community organisations, labouring for access to jobs and adequate shelter echoed this sentiment, "We are abandoned," said one refugee.

And the local NGOs working for refugee rights in Quito, Lago Agrio, and Esmeraldas, likewise beat the same drum.

"It’s just us," said one service provider.

The Ecuadorian government purports to put 40 million USD a year into the care of the some 200,000 Colombian refugees residing within its borders. Government ministers now express fatigue and disillusionment, and talk of cooperating with Colombian authorities to repatriate refugees to the still active war zones of Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca in Colombia. If the international community does not step up to relieve some of the strain on Ecuador and show interest in the addressing the needs of the hard to serve, and harder to protect urban refugee population, the Ecuador experience may well stand as a disincentive for other nations in the region to work towards implementing the laudable goals for the care of urban refugees in the Mexico Plan of Action.

As urban refugee policy suggests solutions for true protection and integration of Colombian refugees living in the Latin American Region require a resource base, coupled with effective cooperation and support from a wide range of other actors, especially those governments and city authorities that host the growing number of Colombian refugees.

Director of UNHCR's America’s Bureau, Marta Juarez reflected on the similarities between UNHCR's Urban Refugee Policy and the Mexico Plan of Action last year, noting that "Latin America can help promote and put into action the concept of protection for persons of concern in urban situations." This is true.

With a proper resource base, Latin American nations that implement the Mexico Plan of Action in good faith may become examples of best practices for addressing needs of urban refugees in the developing world.

On the other hand a lack of resources and attention to the crisis over the last several years may lead to the failure of a yet unrealised plan in the Colombian refugee context, resulting in collapsing protection space, rising human insecurity, regional instability, and a lost opportunity for addressing comprehensive and durable solutions for one of UNHCR's largest urban populations of concern worldwide.

Arguably one of the most persistent – and neglected – humanitarian crises in the Western Hemisphere, Colombia's ongoing conflict has resulted in the targeted persecution and displacement of more than four million Colombians in the last two decades. Learn more March 23rd during an event at the Migration Policy Institute.