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AQ Feature

Dispatches: Ecuador's Invisible Refugee Population

Colombian citizens who have fled the violence in their own country face discrimination and an uncertain future in Ecuador.
"Do you know how many candies I have to sell to pay the bills? We don't live—we survive" —Natalia (Photograph courtesy of Chris Bentley)

Quito, Ecuador. Javier González* was teaching his nine-year-old son Miguel how to play chess on the living room floor when Miguel’s mother, Rosa, interrupted their game. “Tell us what happened at school today,” she said. Miguel looked at the floor and recounted what his Ecuadorian classmate had said to another student during gym class: “Don’t play with him—he’s Colombian.” Miguel spent the rest of the class by himself.

It wasn’t the first time he had felt like an outsider.

Miguel and his family are Colombian refugees. In 2007, facing pressure to assist paramilitaries, they fled the chaos of their native country for safe haven in Ecuador under the norms of international law. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 define a refugee as any person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted […] is outside the country of his nationality and is unable […] to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

But Colombians in Ecuador don’t fit the stereotypical picture of refugees living in camps under blue plastic tents. Miguel, his parents and his younger brother, Carlos, live in a nondescript apartment in one of Quito’s lower-middle-class neighborhoods, barely making rent each month. On the afternoon of my visit there are only a few old religious posters decorating the walls, but Rosa tells me they are normally covered with pictures of what they wish for, including their dream homes. “We take them down when we have visitors. They are too personal,” she explains.

Like thousands of other Colombian refugees in Ecuador, the González’ live almost invisibly—hidden among their Ecuadorian neighbors. But as Miguel’s classroom experience shows, they are not necessarily a welcome presence. They are more often viewed by Ecuadorians with suspicion and often associated with criminal activity.

Fleeing Colombia

Since Colombia’s long-running internal conflict flared up in the 1960s, it has produced millions of internally displaced persons and refugees.

According to statistics released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in November 2010, Colombia has the world’s highest number of persons displaced by violence. The Colombian NGO Consultoría de los Derechos Humanos y Desplazamiento (CODHES) estimates that in the past 20 years, 5 million Colombians have voluntarily or involuntarily left their homes, with more than 280,000 displaced in 2010 alone.

In addition to the millions displaced within Colombia, thousands have fled to neighboring countries—a massive population movement rarely registered in international media.

The González family is among approximately 53,000 Colombians living in Ecuador who hold official refugee documentation from the Ecuadorian government. An additional 1,328 documented Colombian refugees live in Panama, and 2,734 in Venezuela. The UNHCR estimates that there are another 90,000 Colombians in Ecuador in need of international protection.

While these statistics demonstrate the scale of the official refugee population, they do not capture the tragedy and hardship encountered by Colombian refugees abroad.

Natalia (who requested that her surname not be used), a Colombian woman with two Ecuadorian-born children, was denied refugee status. She originally fled Colombia after urban gangs in Bogotá threatened her family. “My cousin became involved [with the gangs] and had some problems,” she tells me. Then “we all became targets” and Natalia decided to flee. Her situation, however, was not considered by Ecuadorian authorities as adequate grounds for obtaining refugee status.

Rosa and Javier say that they had a happy life in Colombia. For over 10 years, they worked on a melon farm in the western part of the country. By 2006, they had saved enough for Rosa to establish a foundation that provided free day care for local women.

Soon after the foundation was formally registered as a nonprofit organization in 2007, a group of paramilitaries approached Rosa. The men offered her $10,000 to hand over control of the foundation so that they could use it as a front for money laundering.

Rosa couldn’t bear to watch her foundation become a hub of illegal activity, so she refused the paramilitaries’ offer. The bribes escalated to threats. Finally, when two strangers came to her house, she fled. “I knew that they had come to kill me,” she said.

Rosa and her family spent the next nine months in hiding. “I never imagined I would have so many problems because of the foundation,” she says. “I never imagined it would change my life so much.”

Starting Again in Ecuador

A friend arranged for the González family’s journey to Ecuador. They were shuttled south before finally arriving in the northern Ecuadorian town of Ibarra in 2007, which has a large population of Colombian refugees. Throughout the journey, Rosa clung to the hope that once she and her family arrived in Ecuador, they could finally live in peace.

She was wrong. Things were not easy in Ibarra. For Rosa and her husband, employment was a major obstacle. Although refugees and individuals soliciting refugee status are legally guaranteed the right to work in Ecuador, they are frequently discriminated against during the hiring process and in some cases denied loans from official banks.

Enrique Salazar, a middle-aged Colombian refugee who fled violent clashes between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian military, considers himself lucky.

He received a small private loan from a U.S. aid worker he befriended and used it to create a makeshift shoe shop. “It is very hard to start your own small business here,” he comments while sewing shoes in his cramped living room.

So far he has not yet earned enough money to rent a workshop space or storefront. Yet he repeatedly mentioned how grateful he is for the opportunity to “work peacefully.” Natalia, on the other hand, scrapes by selling candy on local buses for two cents apiece, competing with documented Colombian refugees.

“Do you know how many of these candies I have to sell to pay the bills?” she asks. “We don’t live—we survive.”

Rosa and Javier’s struggles are typical of the travails many Colombian refugees face in finding steady work. Once, Javier got paid only $10 for 15 full days of work stuffing envelopes. His experience of labor exploitation is all too common, and there are few tools available for refugees to find redress.

There were months when the González family went hungry. “I had to sell my shirts and pants to buy a bag of milk and some bread for my children,” Rosa recalled. After about a year, Javier and Rosa found well-paying jobs as grounds managers for a large private property in Ibarra. Slowly the family began the task of building their lives in a new home.

But it wasn’t long before the family was forced to uproot itself once more—and move to Quito. Rosa won’t talk about the reasons. But over the course of a long afternoon, the story came out in pieces. Referring intermittently to “when my son and I were kidnapped [...] he saw things he should never have seen [...] they beat me and raped me,” she made it clear that the Colombian paramilitaries had found them.

Many Colombian refugees remain scarred and even paralyzed by memories of the armed groups that persecuted them in Colombia. Even though all four members of the González family sleep in the same room, Rosa says Miguel often has nightmares about the paramilitaries.

That’s not unusual. Many Colombian refugees report living in constant fear. They live nomadic lifestyles, moving from one city or neighborhood to another to avoid being traced, and soliciting psychological, social and legal support when possible. Many dream of resettling to a far-away third country and freeing themselves of their refugee status. “We cannot be refugees forever,” says Rosa.

A number of refugees avoid extensive interactions with other Colombians altogether, especially those who are not family or trusted friends. Though he is not in hiding, Enrique, the shoemaker, claims that he limits his social interactions to Ecuadorians “to avoid any problems.”

Despite their hardships, many refugees remain optimistic. Rosa pointed to the positive signs in her life: the pile of old clothes she has been mending to sell at a local shop, her children looking forward to upcoming birthdays.

“You just have to keep moving forward,” she says again and again.

A Cold Welcome

Surveys show that most Ecuadorians would prefer to see the numbers of Colombian refugees in their country shrink. In a recent national survey by Beatriz Zepeda and Luis Verdesoto from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), approximately 64 percent of Ecuadorians said their opinion about Colombians living in Ecuador ranged from bad to very bad. As a group, Colombians elicited the most negative response—above Peruvians, Cubans, Chinese, Americans, and Europeans.

This negative perception was evident in conversations with a number of Ecuadorians in Quito. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers and landowners all reacted with suspicion when asked about Colombian refugees. After hearing about the situation of Rosa and her family, Jorge Rivera, a young taxi driver in Quito responded, “People don’t hide if they haven’t done something wrong.”

Similarly, a former Ecuadorian government official who asked not to be named added that, while most of Ecuador’s crimes are committed by Ecuadorians, she was convinced that some criminals had learned violent techniques—like those of the sicariatos (hit men)—from Colombians.

In the past decade, crime rates have been rising steadily in Ecuador. A study released in 2010 by the Americas Barometer, a project by Vanderbilt University, found that 29 percent of the 3,000 Ecuadorians surveyed reported being a victim of a crime in the 12 months prior to the survey.

While the underlying reasons for the rise in crime are complex and numerous, in official discourse the current high levels are often linked to Colombians. In June 2011, in one of his weekly radio addresses, President Rafael Correa said that the process by which refugee status was determined had been “very lax” and that “sometimes delinquents” were granted refuge.

Ecuadorian officials have recently called for more rigorous standards for granting official refugee status, including a second interview. There have also been recent talks of a deal between the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad—Colombia’s Secret Service—and Ecuadorian authorities to share a database of Colombian judicial records. Leonardo Carrión, deputy secretary for migratory, consular and refugee affairs in Ecuador’s Ministry of the Exterior,  says the agreement “would eliminate the need for a police record.” Though refugees are asked to present police records under the current system, they commonly proceed to the next step in the determination process without them.

The disproportionate resentment toward Colombians in Ecuador is partly a defensive reaction, says Juan Villalobos, associate director of the Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados y Migrantes (Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Service–SJRM), which provides psychological and legal assistance to refugees. “Culture has a form of defense, and that is to project negative social aspects on a third party. In this case, foreigners.” The social challenges of delinquency, organized crime and prostitution are commonly projected onto Colombians, he notes.

Although some Colombians have been convicted of crimes in Ecuador, the majority of refugees are not involved in criminal activity. Currently there are no more than 100 documented Colombian refugees in Ecuadorian prisons, according to José Sandoval, head of the refugee directory within Ecuador’s Ministry of the Exterior.

It is extremely unlikely that reducing the level of officially recognized refugees through stricter eligibility requirements would have a tangible impact on crime rates. Moreover, says Sandoval, “We don’t have any certainty that [those who are denied refugee status] have returned to Colombia. On the contrary, we are very certain that they remain in Ecuador.”

Refugee Politics

Beginning in 2008, Ecuador had become a leader in refugee policy, enacting programs such as the Enhanced Registration process, which was a joint project with the UNHCR that successfully documented approximately 30,000 Colombian refugees in the Ecuadorian border regions from March 2009 to March 2010.

However, the Ecuadorian government’s refugee policies began to shift in early 2011, and policies started to change on the Colombian side as well. After taking office in August 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos worked quickly to reestablish diplomatic relations with Ecuador. (They had been severed in March 2008 after Colombian security forces destroyed a FARC camp on Ecuadorian territory.)

In a press conference in May 2011, Santos officially recognized Colombia’s long-term war as an “internal armed conflict.” This marked a significant departure from Santos’ predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who supported the definition of Colombia as a country facing a terrorist threat.

Santos also initiated several programs for refugees to return to their homes, including, for example, the Colombian Victims and Land Restitution Law, which promises monetary compensation and land restoration for roughly 4 million displaced Colombians. Santos signed the law in June 2011, and it goes into effect on January 1, 2012.

Even so, Colombian refugees are for the most part uninterested in returning home. “I am not going to return to Colombia, especially not now while my children are young,” Rosa declared, explaining that Colombia continues to lack security and has high levels of violence. Her husband questioned whether the Colombian state is more interested in promoting a rosy image globally or protecting its citizens.

A survey released in October 2011 by FLACSO demonstrates that many Colombians in Ecuador share Rosa and Javier’s security concerns. Of the 1,300 Colombians (comprising both documented and undocumented Colombians in a refugee-like situation), 84 percent reported that they do not wish to return to Colombia at this time.

Villalobos, of the SJRM, confirmed that their fear is not unfounded: “There are a lot of zones that still have guerrillas, that still have paramilitaries,” he says. “To have the people return to their original homes [is] incredibly dangerous. They are promoting a return when the conditions for it do not currently exist.”

That leaves many refugees in a state of limbo. Unwilling to leave but anxious about staying, many seem to have put their futures on hold.

When I say goodbye to Rosa and ask for the family’s mailing address, Rosa hesitates. Then she explains apologetically, “I don’t know how long we will live here. They could find us tomorrow, and then we would have to leave.”

*Except for Natalia, all refugees' names in this story have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Colombia, Ecuador, Refugees