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Ecuador: invisible Colombian refugees, discrimination and an uncertain future
02 February 2012

Approximately 500,000 Colombian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries throughout the region, many of whom remain in need of durable solutions, particularly as local integration and safe returns to Colombia remain elusive options. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Although several programmes have been initiated to help refugees return, including one promising monetary compensation and land restoration, most refugees are uninterested.
Quito, 02 February 2012 — Javier González* was teaching his nine-year-old son Miguel how to play chess when Miguel's mother, Rosa, interrupted their game to ask him what had happened at school today.

Miguel looked at the floor and recounted what his Ecuadorian classmate had said to another student: "Don't play with him- he's Colombian".

Forced to flee paramilitary threats, Miguel and his family were recognised as refugees. But Colombians in Ecuador don't fit the stereotypical picture of refugees in camps. They live in a nondescript apartment in one of Quito's lower-middle-class neighbourhoods, barely making rent each month. As Miguel's experience shows, they are not necessarily a welcome presence, often viewed with suspicion and associated with criminal activity.

According to the UN refugee agency, some five million Colombians have been displaced by violence, of whom 20 percent have fled the country. The González family is among approximately 53,000 recognised refugees – out of an estimated 140,000 Colombians in need of international protection – in Ecuador.

Rosa and Javier say that they had a happy life in Colombia, and they had even saved enough to establish a non-profit organisation providing free day care for local women. But soon afterwards, a paramilitary group offered Rosa 10,000 US dollars to front for their money laundering operations.

After she refused, the bribes escalated to threats and when two strangers came to her house, the family fled. Throughout the journey, Rosa clung to the hope of finding peace in Ecuador. But she was wrong; employment has been a major obstacle. Although refugees are legally entitled to work in Ecuador, they frequently face discrimination.

In a recent national survey by the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), approximately 64 percent of Ecuadorians said their opinion of Colombians in their country ranged from bad to very bad.

While the underlying reasons for Ecuador's recent 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 refugee determination process has been "very lax" and that "sometimes delinquents" were granted asylum.

The disproportionate resentment toward Colombians is partly a defensive reaction, said Juan Villalobos, JRS Ecuador associate director. The social challenges of delinquency, organised crime and prostitution are commonly projected onto Colombians, he added.

"Culture has a form of defence, and that is to project negative social aspects on a third party, in this case, foreigners".

Refugee politics

Although several programmes have been initiated to help refugees return, including one promising monetary compensation and land restoration, most refugees are uninterested.

An October 2011 survey by FLACSO of 1,300 refugee and undocumented Colombians, 84 percent said they did not wish to return home at this time, a view shared by Rosa who justified her response citing insecurity and high levels of violence.

For Mr Villalobos their fears are not unfounded, as many parts of the country are inhabited by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

"… They are promoting a return when the conditions for it do not currently exist", he said.

*The names in this story have been changed to preserve anonymity.

The original article, "Ecuador's Invisible Refugee Population" by Stephanie Leutert, appeared in the online publication America's Quarterly.

User reflections
It's very sad to know that many people of my country are living in such a complicate condition. For one side they were affected for problems inside the country and on the other way they have to carry with the indifference abroad. Its very touching, but I question to myself, What I can to do to help? and Why to the media doesn't show this on the local news?
Jesuit Refugee Service International Office - February 06, 2012
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