Colombian refugees in Ecuador face discrimination and an uncertain future, according to accounts newly-published in America’s Quarterly.
But despite their hardships, the majority prefer to remain in the country rather than return to the violence which drove them from their homeland.
In one instance, Rosa Gonzalez, a refugee from western Colombia, was forced to flee after establishing a non-profit organization to provide daycare for women, the magazine reported.
Having turned down a $10,000 offer to hand over the foundation to neo-paramilitaries for money-laundering, she became a target for threats and fled feeling her family was in imminent danger.
Inside Ecuador the group caught up with her, assaulting her in front of her 9-year-old son and forcing her to move on again.
“He saw things he should never have to see,” she said. “They beat me and raped me,” she told AQ.
It is in this context that a reluctance to return to Colombia can be understood, because extensive neo-paramilitary and guerrilla networks can easily track people down.
Yet life in Ecuador is challenging. Many struggle to find regular work and face discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. Gonzalez spoke of having to sell clothes to buy milk and bread, while her husband Javier was once paid $10 for fifteen days of work stuffing envelopes.
Surveys of Ecuadorian people show that Colombians are the most negatively perceived nationality group within the country, often associated with criminality, prostitution and violence.
Meanwhile, discrimination and fear of being found leads many refugees to avoid interaction with other Colombians, making them isolated and subject to further psychological torment.
According to NGO Spotlight, which works with displaced people around the world, 98% of Ecuador’s 50,000 recognized refugees are of Colombian origin, while the UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR] projected a total of 165,000 Colombians in need of international protection would be in Ecuador by January 2012.
While the UNHCR recognizes the Ecuadorean constitution as “strongly oriented towards human rights,” support has grown in the country over recent years for more rigorous standards in the granting of refugee status.
In a June 2011 radio address Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced a tightening of the system, branding the previous arrangement “very lax” and adding “sometimes delinquents asked for refuge and were granted refugee status.”
The Ecuadorean and Colombian governments have both been working to address the Colombian refugee problem in Ecuador, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ Victims and Land Restitution Law promising compensation and property restitution to displaced people.
However, with guerrillas and neo-paramilitaries still prevalent in much of the country, compensation does not provide the necessary security to tempt people back to their homeland.