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Latin America: sixty years on from the refugee convention, Cartagena is part of the solution
20 June 2011

Many Colombians are forced to flee generalised violence, including that caused by paramilitary and guerrilla groups. Unable to demonstrate an individual fear of persecution, they are all too frequently denied refugee status, Panama City, Panama (Peter Balleis SJ/ JRS)
Many Colombian asylum seekers were refused refugee status as they had fled "generalised violence", and not individualised persecution.
Bogotá, 20 June 2011 – Today, the world pauses to commemorate the millions of people forced to flee their homes out of fear of persecution and who are unable to return to the places where they had built their lives.

In 2011, this commemoration has a special relevance; it is 60 years since the formal adoption of the 1951 UN refugee convention. This building block of international refugee law has allowed millions of refugees to access international protection and find durable solutions to their displacement.

Latin America has not been immune to the global dynamics of inter-state and internal conflicts. In fact, it has been host to the most protracted humanitarian crisis in recent years, the epicentre of which is Colombia. Since the end of the 1990s, armed conflict in Colombia has gone from being an internal problem, to becoming the prime violence-related humanitarian crisis on the continent.

While the effects of the situation have extended beyond the borders of the country, one of the most dramatic consequences of this conflict has been the hundreds of thousands of Colombians forced to seek international protection. This has had a particular impact on its neighbouring states: Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.

Understanding the magnitude of the crisis requires a closer inspection of current statistics on displacement and refugees. According to government sources, between 1997 and 31 December 2010, more than 3.6 million Colombians were forcibly displaced by violence. NGOs, such as the Internal Displacement Monitoring centre, put the figure at as high as 5.2 million, more than 10 percent of the population.

In addition to the internally displaced population, there are those forced to flee Colombia. Between asylum seekers and recognised refugees, there are currently more than 100,000 Colombians in Ecuador. However, according to a study undertaken in 2008, there were more than 135,000 Colombians in need of international protection within Ecuador.

To this number, one must add the approximately 180,000 in Venezuela and 15,000 in Panama. In total, there are approximately 330,000 Colombians who have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries as a consequence of violence.

Yet, according to data regarding the process of asylum status determination, the number of recognised refugees is extremely low. This is in part due to the low number of applications, and in part due to the approval rate. The following table illustrates this situation:

 Country  In need of protection
% of total
Recognised refugees% of total
 Venezuela 180,000
 Panama  15,000 792
 Ecuador  135,000 50,000

 Total  330,000 65,396
Sources: (UNHCR, Human Rights Council – Panama, Ministry for Foreign Affairs – Ecuador)

This table raises two questions: Why do only 20 percent of those in need of protection apply? And why is the recognition rate so low? For clarity it is important to note that the above figures refer to total applications regardless of their nationality, not just Colombians who represent the overwhelming majority.

The principal reason why Colombians do not seek asylum is related to ignorance of the benefits of asylum applications, and of the law in general. Likewise, they fear being deported or detained, a violation of two fundamental principles of international refugee law: non-refoulement and non sanction.

Various hypotheses explain the low level of refugee recognition in these countries, including the:
  • efficiency of the asylum procedures;
  • willingness of the governments to grant protection; and
  • inability of existing legislation to assure their recognition as refugees.
Upon closer examination of the statistics, one notes significant differences between the three countries. In Venezuela only one percent of those in need of protection are recognised as refugees and seven percent in Panama, while the figure in Ecuador increases to 40 percent.

The experience of JRS Ecuador in the enhanced registration process, a programme sponsored by the Ecuadorian government and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), between 2009 and 2010, may shed more light on this issue. This was a massive awareness campaign in border areas, in which the registration, analysis and resolution of individual asylum applications was made possible in one day. Thanks to the programme, more than 27,000 Colombians were recognised as refugees in only one year.

This contrasts sharply with the experience of JRS Panama and Venezuela last year. Many Colombian asylum seekers were refused refugee status as they had fled "generalised violence", and not individualised persecution. This category, generalised violence, includes victims of paramilitary and other non-state actors, criteria indiscriminately applied by the Panamanian government. In Venezuela, applications are frequently classified as manifestly unfounded offering the authorities a huge degree of discretion in the assessment of the causes of flight.

Thanks to the impact of the enhanced registration process carried out in Ecuador, the Venezuelan refugee agency is currently undertaking an awareness campaign. As of yet, this has not resulted in a significant increase in the asylum recognition rate.

Upon examination of the refugee definition used in Ecuador, one finds additional clauses other than those cited in the 1951 UN convention. It considers refugees persons "who have fled their country of origin because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflict, massive violation of human rights and other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order".

This broader definition, contained in Ecuadorian law, is a reflection of the spirit of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. In addition, the enhanced registration process is an example of how a regional instrument, based on an analysis of the particular circumstances of asylum, can be a decisive factor in providing effective protection to thousands of forcibly displaced Latin Americans.

The broader refugee definition in Ecuador has enabled the success of the enhanced registration process, making it more than just a good intention.

This year's World Refugee Day should be taken as an opportunity to urge Latin American governments to incorporate the provisions of the Cartagena declaration in their respective domestic legislation, thereby improving the bonds of solidarity that characterise the region and provide better protection for refugees.

Juan Felipe Carrillo Regional Advocacy Officer, JRS Latin America and Caribbean

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