Colombian refugees struggle to rebuild lives in Ecuador

An ENS World Refugee Day report
June 19, 2011

After an eight-month separation from them, Antonio boarded a plane with his wife and their three children in Cali, Colombia, last winter and flew to Quito, Ecuador, where they petitioned the Ecuadorian government for asylum.

It was the ultimate act in a 10-year-saga that included an attempt on Antonio's life, four internal displacements within Colombia's border and the loss of everything material and familiar. The family landed in metro-Quito in a "safe house" belonging to the Diocese of Central Ecuador.

Colombia's half-century-long armed conflict -- characterized by displacement, violence and human and drug trafficking -- has forced more than 116,000 refugees across the border into Ecuador. They are among the more than 15 million refugees worldwide whose plight is spotlighted each June 20 on World Refugee Day, commemorated annually since 2001.

In May, ENS visited Ecuador and heard the stories of Colombian refugees living there. Their tales reflect the violence and lost homes, livelihoods, families and lives that have characterized the South American country's prolonged war. To protect the refugees from further harm and persecution, their names have been changed.

On a Tuesday in May, Ricardo, his wife and their three children stood waiting outside the Iglesia Cristiana Menonita, a Mennonite house church in the La Inca section of Quito that houses the Colombian Refugee Project, a shared ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Ecuador and the Quito Mennonite Church that addresses refugees' long-term needs.

Patricia Morck, an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary who coordinates the project, unlocked the gate and welcomed the family inside, where she unpacked her laptop and listened to their story.

Paramilitaries dealing in narcotics forced Ricardo, who is from Colombia's Antioquia region, into Ecuador after insisting he had information on drug routes -- they wanted him to work for them. A couple of weeks later, the International Committee of the Red Cross provided safe transport out of Colombia for his wife and children, he explained as Morck translated from Spanish to English.

The couple's children – two girls and a boy – played with toys across the room as their parents described their situation. The mother fought back tears.

On one hand, the family is fortunate. Their request for refugee status was granted in less than three months, and Ricardo found work as a motorcycle mechanic earning $150 a week in a country where $220 is the monthly minimum wage and refugees and Ecuadorians alike often struggle to find work. On the other, paramilitaries have continued to harass Ricardo's mother in Colombia for information about him; his wife's nephew was kidnapped; and paramilitaries followed the family to Ecuador, causing Ricardo and his family to fear for their lives.

"This is an extreme case," Morck said. "The kids don't leave the apartment. They [the parents] think the only thing they can do is go back to Colombia. They have family in Colombia; if they go back and are killed, they know their children will be cared for."

The couple said they felt as though they'd be dead before their case was resolved.

Morck typed a record of the threats against Ricardo and his family to present to the public defender's office. And she sent an e-mail to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees director for protection and security for the family, an action she said she rarely took. UNHCR will help refugees resettle in another country if their situation is perilous or the first host country cannot meet their needs.

In addition to the total more than 400,000 Colombian refugees and asylum seekers (including those in Ecuador) the conflict, which has been waged by government forces, right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas, has internally displaced more than 3 million people, more than in Sudan and Iraq combined, according to UNHCR, the U.N. agency that leads and coordinates international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.

As the story of Antonio and his family attests, an international border doesn't stop the terror and persecution of Colombian refugees who enter Ecuador. Like that of Ricardo's family, Antonio's family's situation is an extreme case. After hearing the family's story, Morck referred them to the Rev. Gladys Elisa Vásquez, vicar of Misión Reconciliación an Episcopal Church in the Chimbacalle section of Quito, who offered them use of the "safe house."

Before leaving Colombia, Antonio, his wife Carmen and the children – girls aged 14 and 16 and a 2-and-a-half-year-old son – tried to get visas to Canada and the United States, but the applications were denied.

In Colombia, Antonio ran his own paper-product distributorship and was assigned a territory in the "red zone," or territory controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist-guerilla organization commonly referred to as FARC. His approach, and that of others trying to make a living in the region, was to mind his own business, he said. But he found himself on the "wrong side" of the paramilitaries after selling school supplies to a community activist in Valle del Cauca who gave them to public-school children. The activist was killed in May 2002, according to a newspaper article Antonio saved. (Community activists, teachers, union and labor activists have been labeled "subversives" and killed in large numbers in Colombia, Amnesty International has documented.)

"I never imagined that a relationship like that would lead to this," said Antonio, "but when it's the military, the paramilitaries and the FARC, if you are not in trouble with one, then it is the other."

Paramilitaries once tried to kill Antonio. In December, a nephew was told he'd be killed if he didn't disclose the family's whereabouts. The family doesn't keep in touch with relatives in Colombia because they don't want to endanger their lives. They left behind a pickup truck to be sold, and the young man who bought it was murdered, the family said.

When the family arrived in Ecuador, Antonio said, he felt "a weight had been lifted." But, Carmen said, they fear that the people who are after them will find them. "The border is so open anyone can come here."

For the sake of their children and his own sanity, Antonio said, he must keep working. While he waits for his visa, which is necessary for official work, Antonio sells bags of chips in busy intersections around Quito with money Vásquez loaned him to buy inventory.

It's not uncommon to see faces of people he knew in Colombia. One day, one of the daughters recalled, she was selling chips with her father when he saw someone he recognized. "He turned completely white, and we got out of there."

Resettlement needs and reality on the ground
The United States, which resettles more refugees than any other country, began resettling Colombian refugees referred to it by UNHCR in 2002 but provides more funding than resettlement opportunities. Fifty-two of the 74,654 refugees resettled in the United States in 2009 were Colombians, according to the President's Report to Congress for 2011; in 2010 the number rose to 123. Refugees from Iraq and Burma respectively numbered 18,838 and 18,202 in 2009.

Since 2000, in the form of "Plan Colombia," the United States has given the Colombian government more than $8 billion in military and financial aid, with some of that aid spent on protecting the interests of multinational corporations.

Since the 1980s, competition and disputes over land for agriculture, cattle ranching, resource extraction and coca cultivation have figured prominently in Colombia's conflict as the armed groups have fought for control of territory.

In late May, the Colombian government passed a law aimed at returning some 17 million acres of misappropriated land to its rightful owners. Paramilitaries, guerillas and drug dealers had used violence and fraud to take control of the land.

The government also said it had identified the remains of some 10,000 people who "disappeared" as a result of violence among left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries, government and security forces and drug gangs, who have used kidnapping as a tactic of war. The government added that it was working to identify the remains of 10,000 additional "disappeared" people.

"This crisis is really in our backyard," said Ana White, the Episcopal Church's Washington, D.C.-based immigration and refugee policy analyst, in a telephone interview. "In November I visited Lago Agrio, an oil town on the border where there's a lot of money and illegal activity. There were 85 registered brothels. There's a lot of prostitution, trafficking, kidnappings. The things we heard … the levels of violence and torture. People live in fear; they are completely unprotected, disenfranchised."

White participated in a Refugee Council USA Mission to Panama and Ecuador last fall that produced a report, "Living on the Edge." The report suggests the United States increase assistance to Ecuador in response to its efforts to expand protection to refugees, support integration programs and programs to combat xenophobia and expand protection for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Seeking help from the church
Morck sees clients in her office for three hours every Tuesday morning, plus makes on-site visits throughout the week. On the day Ricardo's family visited, she saw at least eight other cases, directing new cases to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which partners with UNHCR to addresses immediate humanitarian and basic needs. She also sees regular clients who come for food rations or assistance and others who come just to talk. (HIAS provides refugees with food assistance for three months. After that, the project provides assistance for six more months.)

That day's clients included Juan Carlos, whose wife left him five years ago to join FARC. He talked to Morck about his daughters, aged 9 and 7, and his fear that they were maturing too quickly. He left with $20 Morck gave him to put toward his rent.

A single mother of five children followed Juan Carlos, then a young man seeking food and work. Then Amelia, Claudia and Claudia's 19-year-old pregnant daughter arrived to collect their monthly food ration, including staples like rice, beans, flour, noodles, quinoa and powdered milk for families with children.

The government officially has three months to evaluate an application for a refugee visa, but in reality it takes between six to nine months, Morck said. With a green card, which they receive when their request is processed, asylum seekers can access medical care and schools, but a visa, which includes a social-security number, is necessary for work, she said.

A third of Ecuador's 13.7 million people live in poverty, which makes finding work difficult for both populations and leads to resentment and discrimination against refugees.

In January, HIAS temporarily suspended its operations to restructure its program. In March, Episcopal Relief & Development granted the Colombia Refugee Project $7,500 for basic care items, sleeping mats and blankets, items typically provided by HIAS to newly arrived refugees. The Mennonite Central Committee in Colombia provided money for food. Since March, the number of new families seeking help from the project has increased from two to eight a month, mostly by word of mouth, Morck said.

Despite its own economic problems, Ecuador keeps an open border and hasn't restricted the number of asylum seekers it allows to enter the country. Besides the more than 116,000 refugees, an estimated 250,000 more Colombians – people who have been denied legal status or who haven't applied for protection – live in Ecuador, as the Refugee Council USA report noted.

Patricia Rosero has worked on the border for 11 years, the last two as the head of UNHCR's field unit in Tulcán, a border city of 60,000 in Ecuador's northeastern Carachi province where some 5,000 refugees live. During that time, she's witnessed an increase in the number of asylum seekers crossing the border and an increase in the Ecuadorian government's willingness to address their needs, she said.

"It's important to emphasize that Ecuador is a poor country and that it accepts more refugees than any other Latin American country," Rosero said.

UNHCR registers asylum seekers at the border, guides them through the processes for receiving recognized refugee status and directs them to public and private assistance agencies. Each day, Rosero said, UNHCR registers five new cases, on average, which can be individuals or families.

"The cases are becoming more complex because of the context," she noted. "There's not just one military factor."

Paramilitaries and the FARC have embedded in Ecuador's border provinces, as well as in the country's interior, where they have terrorized local and refugee populations while trafficking in drugs, arms and people, the Refugee Council USA report said.

The influx of Colombians seeking asylum has led to tension, and sometimes physical violence, between Colombians and Ecuadorians.

Shelter, Rosero said, is the most immediate need of asylum seekers crossing the border, which is one of the things that brought UNHCR into conversation with the Episcopal Church.

"Here in Tulcán there are no shelters to receive people when they cross the border," Rosero said. "HIAS has agreements with hotels and restaurants."

Refugees used to stay in modest hotels, where families might be given one blanket, and eat in restaurants, where their accents quickly identified them as Colombian. Immediate identification as "the other" can aggravate an already stressful situation, said Alexander Vaca Tapia, a church lay leader who works at the Diocese of Central Ecuador's mission station in Tulcán.

"There are many confrontations. There is a movement to get them [Ecuadorians and Colombians] to live together, but there are rivalries," he said. "There's a lot of jealousy on the side of the Ecuadorians for the help Colombians receive. Another source of confrontation is [that], with the increase of Colombians, delinquency has risen, but not all Colombians who come here are delinquents. Many Colombians have values, are hard-working and want to move past their problems, but people don't recognize it."

In January, the diocese submitted a $32,000 grant application to the United Thank Offering to buy close to an acre of land just outside Tulcán, where it plans to build a shelter for asylum seekers.

Besides registering asylum seekers, UNHCR works with local governments to establish integration projects and with small border towns to offer services that benefit both populations and encourage integration. The mission station has partnered with the UNHCR on integration efforts and holiday-centered events focused on bringing people together.

Ana María, a 31-year-old mother of two who two years ago fled Colombia's Putumayo region after armed men robbed and killed her husband, put it this way: "The Ecuadorian people are friendly, but they don't have a lot of trust in the Colombian people. So many refugees come because they need peace in their lives. I can't live in fear that someone will take my sons and make them fight."

Vaca Tapia also works to make inroads into the refugee community, but, he said, that takes time.

"With refugee families, the work is slow… they always feel like they are being followed," he said, adding they get "put off" if you approach too quickly.

Vaca Tapia has established a rapport with Ana María. In two years, Ana María hasn't received recognized refugee status and could be deported at any moment. Her son was born in Ecuador, and, with Morck's help, Vaca Tapia is helping her navigate the process to apply for a protective visa.

One of Vaca Tapia's neighbors introduced them. He helped Ana María with food and to get her 5-year-old son into day care so that she could pay the rent on her $100-a-month apartment. Her 14-year-old son lives in Colombia with his grandparents. She makes a living washing clothes.

Ana María most desires recognized refugee status.

"If you don't have papers, people think you are a drug dealer or a prostitute," she said. "Papers make you legitimate."

One of the hardest things for a refugee, said David Shenk, a Mennonite volunteer who works with Morck and the Colombian Refugee Project, is losing everything and having to ask for help to start over.

Luisa, 34, had a home, a car and an office job in Colombia before her family was forced to leave. She also struggled to gain recognized refugee status, which the Ecuadoran government granted after two and a half years. Her mother and a brother were resettled abroad. She is married to an Ecuadorian but is not accepted by her husband's family, and she has been attacked in the street outside her home, she said. Her 10-year-old daughter has health problems and has struggled to adjust to her new life.

Luisa's hope, she said, is "that I will be able to find peace and be reunited with my mother."

She's afraid, Morck translated, that her mother will die where she was resettled in Canada and that she'll never see her again. Before leaving Colombia, Luisa's mother owned a factory that made children's clothing.

In Ecuador, Luisa is taking college courses in graphic design. She and her husband hope to open their own stationery shop. She also has enrolled in a satellite theological-education course offered by the diocese. A former Roman Catholic, Luisa is discerning whether she is called to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

"I've lived through the violence, and I understand it," she said. "I feel like I can help other people who have also lived through the violence."