In recognition of World Refugee Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that “Colombia is Latin America’s largest producer of refugees,” with 396,000 Colombians forced out of their country by threats and violence.
The number also puts Colombia in seventh place worldwide for the highest amount of registered refugees living in other countries.
According to Francesca Fontanini, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in the Andean Region, Ecuador has the largest Colombian refugee population with 56,000. The United States has 25,000, Costa Rica 12,000, Venezuela 3,000 and Panama 1,200. There are reportedly 60,000 asylum seekers in other countries. She added that official figures are likely to be low due to the high number of undocumented refugees.
“Ecuador has been a rather generous country to open its borders to Colombian refugees. The important thing now is not just to receive them, but to give them access to basic rights,” she told Colombia Reports on Wednesday, World Refugee Day.
“One of the biggest problems for Colombian refugees in Ecuador is access to proper documentation– without that they do not have access to public health care services, education, they cannot open bank accounts or get drivers licenses,” she added.
UNHCR calculates the number of Colombian refugees in Ecuador to be 115,00, meaning an estimated 59,000 remain undocumented.
This estimate comes from figures that put the number of Colombians crossing the border each month between 1,300 and 1,500 people, mostly from the departments of Cauca and Valle de Cauca, where violence has increased over the past year—particularly in cities such as Buenaventura and Tumaco on the Pacific Coast, reported Colombian newspaper Vanguardia.
Fontanini added that they are “witnessing a new phenomenon,” where Colombians are no longer remaining in the border region, but flocking to Ecuador’s major cities—Guayaquil, Quito, and Cuenca. According to UNHCR, “of the 56,000 Colombian refugees, about 33,600—60%– are concentrated in cities.”
Fontanini cited several reasons for this trend. The presence of illegal armed groups along the border makes rural territory more dangerous for victims of the conflict, who are vulnerable to threats and violence. She also noted the greater access to public resources and economic opportunities in cities like Guayaquil in southern Ecuador, home to more than 3,000 Colombians.
In the case of Panama, where 1,200 Colombians are registered refugees, the lack of control over the remote, thick jungle that separates the two countries means there could be many more. 850 Colombians are believed to be stranded there following massacres in the western department of Choco, like that in Bojaya in 2002, when FARC guerillas killed 119 civilians hiding in a church during combat with the paramilitary group, the AUC.
These Colombians have reportedly hidden in the dense forest for nearly ten years and only recently have obtained refugee status. Theyare now “finally able to move legally through Panama and access health and education,” said Fontanini who qualified the act as a “great step” by the Panamanian government, she told news agency Efe.
The spokeswoman also talked about the “almost 4 million internally displaced Colombians” in the interior of the country. Colombia posts the second-highest number of internally displaced persons in the world after Sudan.
While Colombian government figures claim an estimated 3.6 million citizens have been forcibly removed from their homes since 1997, some NGOs, like the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, put this figure at nearly five million.
“This internal displacement puts Colombia as the protagonist of one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the world, along with Sudan and the Middle East,” said Fontanini.
The UNHCR representative reiterated that displacement is compounded by insecurity caused by ongoing armed conflict in certain departments, making it extremely difficult for rural populations to access basic services and humanitarian aid.
“With the internal conflict between armed actors it is sometimes impossible to access these communities for months, therefore at the internal level, our greatest worry is guaranteeing humanitarian access,” Fontanini told Colombia Reports.
The flow of displaced persons and refugees is not slowing down as the armed conflict continues to force people from their homes and country, UNCHR said.