|“It is imperative that the international community, especially the United States and other global leaders, elevate their concerns about [the refugees] to the highest levels of diplomatic engagement, while demonstrating a shared commitment to attend to this ongoing and intractable crisis.” ~ Shaina Aber, Associate Advocacy Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA|
(Washington, D.C.) April 16, 2011 — Congressman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) hosted a briefing Thursday, April 14, 2011, in the Cannon House Office Building here on the crisis of Colombia refugees in Ecuador, Panama and neighboring countries.
Shaina Aber, Associate Advocacy Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Andrea Lari, Regional Director of Refugees International and Melanie Nezer, Senior Director for U.S. Programs and Advocacy of the Hebrew immigrant Aid Society provided analysis and in-depth information on the Colombian refugee crisis during the briefing. The three advocates were part of a Refugee Council USA delegation which visited the region late last year.
Mr. McGovern noted that the “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation of Colombian refugees as the greatest ‘invisible humanitarian crisis’ in the world.’
The plight of Colombia’s displaced and refugee population is arguably the most persistent humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. In 2010, Colombian became the country with the largest internally displaced population in the world, surpassing Sudan. Approximately 500,000 Colombian refugees have fled to neighboring countries throughout the region, the majority of whom remain in need of durable solutions, particularly as local integration and safe returns to Colombia remain elusive options.
While encouraging more international assistance to address refugee needs in Panama, Ms. Aber recognized that "from the perspective of a Panamanian official, the problem is vast, and the refugee crisis is not something Panama can address on its own. There are more internally displaced people in Colombia than there are people in Panama. This raises the specter of a near endless flow of refugees into Panama."
But Ms. Aber noted the need for Panama to meet its obligations under the Refugee Convention, obligations it has repeatedly and systematically ignored. Calling on Congressional leaders to take note of the fact that Panama has an only 2% refugee recognition rate, Ms. Aber said, "It is imperative that the international community, especially the United States and other global leaders, elevate their concerns about [the Colombian refugees] to the highest levels of diplomatic engagement, while demonstrating a shared commitment to attend to this ongoing and intractable crisis."
Echoing the urgency of the need for international engagement, Ms. Nezer called for a larger international presence on the border of Ecuador and Colombia to protect both refugees and host communities.
"There’s almost nobody there, it's lawless. It's extremely dangerous and extremely violent," she said.
The briefing followed the release by Refugee Council USA of a report, Living on the Edge: Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador, which details the situation of Colombian refugees in these two countries. Mr. McGovern said he encouraged “everyone to read [the report] and to think about how Congress and NGOs should respond.”
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA also recently published The Refugee Voice — Quiet Crisis, Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA makes the following recommendations:
• The U.S. should raise refugee concerns as a priority issue in diplomatic relations with Panama, advocating for reform of the asylum system and addressing xenophobia in addition to demanding improvements in the protection and assistance provided to vulnerable refugees. U.S. foreign assistance to Panama should be structured so as to encourage refugee protection and development opportunities for both refugee and host communities in need.? ?
• UNHCR should establish a resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Panama and increase its presence in the Darien, as should NGOs and other U.N. agencies, prioritizing access to durable solutions for the 863 people that have Temporary Humanitarian Protection status in the border region. ?
• UNHCR should ensure that refugee children receive Best Interest Determinations that take into consideration durable solutions, family reunification, and permanency planning in both Panama and Ecuador. ??
• The U.S. should increase assistance to Ecuador in recognition of its effort to expand the protection space for refugees, and in recognition of the needs it has identified. The U.S. should increase the use of resettlement as a strategic protection tool for Colombian refugees in Ecuador by increasing its own response and by supporting resettlement within the region.
• For those who can safely remain in Ecuador, the U.S. should fund efforts aimed at integrating Colombian refugees into Ecuadorian society, placing special emphasis on livelihoods, housing, education, access to naturalization, and combating xenophobia.? ?
• U.N. agencies and NGOs should expand their presence on the Ecuador-Colombia border to increase protection for refugee and host communities. The UN and U.S. should work with the Ecuadorian government to expand protection for survivors of SGBV by increasing the capacity of local police and prosecutors to respond to cases of SGBV; training security forces about SGBV; and, providing access to safe housing and income generating opportunities for women.
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