NGO collective Refugee Council USA on Friday called on the international community to do more to assist the hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees in Panama and Ecuador.
The council, made up of 26 U.S.-based NGOs, stated in a report earlier this week that the United States, NGOs, and other international donor countries need to increase efforts to provide services and change practices towards refugees in the two countries, which host the majority of Colombia’s cross-border displaced population.
Shaina Aber, the Associate Advocacy Director of Jesuit Refugee Service USA, one of the 26 NGOs, told Colombia Reports that the U.S. must “elevate concerns of refugees to a high diplomatic level” especially in Panama, a country which she said has “demonstrated a lack of political will” towards addressing the needs of refugees.
According to Aber, Washington should use the pending free trade agreement with Panama as “leverage” to change government practices towards refugees. The Central American country is estimated to shelter between 100,000 and 200,000 Colombian refugees.
Aber said that a lot of aspects of the Colombian conflict have “spilled over the border,” and unless something is done to “stem the tide,” the protracted conflict that has existed in Colombia for the past 50 years will continue to grow outside of the country.
According to Aber, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) should have a sustained presence in the Panama jungle region, where around 1,000 Colombian refugees have been contained within a 3-mile radius since 1998 under a “humanitarian temporary protection” status, with almost no prospect of return or integration.
In Ecuador, where she said the government has made a sincere effort to register and integrate refugees, the international community should recognize and support the progress that has been made. This would include the provision of greater resources and, potentially, sharing some of the resettlement burden, which she said would “ease xenophobia” against Colombian refugees in Ecuador.
Furthermore, a greater number of UN agencies need to become engaged in the process. In particular, Aber noted the importance of agencies such as UNICEF working towards a “best interest determination for unaccompanied refugee minors” so that they don’t end up shuffled into orphanages.
Women, children, and minority groups, such as Afro-Colombians and indigenous Colombians, have been most vulnerable to and most adversely impacted by the Colombian conflict, both within the country and across the border.
Aber recounted numerous stories of sexual abuse, xenophobic attacks, and lack of resources that have contributed to the precarious status of these groups.
In Panama particularly, children born into the refugee population will often remain undocumented and unregistered, making them “de facto stateless.”