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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Colombian refugees in Ecuador brought `out of invisibility'

As millions fleeing civil strife come to Ecuador, the government is working to fast-track the asylum process for refugees.

Special to The Miami Herald

José Nelo remembers all too well the rainy night three months ago when he fled his home in Colombia, taking with him only his family and a small handbag. Armed men entered their home, murdered his brother and threatened to kill the rest of the family if they did not vacate the town within 48 hours.

''We had no choice but to leave fast. It didn't matter that we didn't know where we would go. They were going to kill us,'' said Nelo, standing on a plank in front of the tiny thatched shack his family has recently made home.

The refugee crises spawned by ongoing conflict in neighboring Colombia has left millions displaced, making the nation second only to Sudan in nations with the most internal refugees. Rural farmers and families are frequently intimidated by guerrilla and paramilitary groups, who send them fleeing amid death threats, forced recruitment, the demand of unaffordable taxes, persecution for political organizing, land seizures and intolerable violence in their villages and towns.


As violence has been pushed south into the jungles near the border, more displaced Colombians have sought refuge in Ecuador, a country known to have open policies concerning asylum. Though the nation claims 22,000 registered refugees, the government and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate that there is a much larger ''invisible population'' of 135,000 people in need of international protection.

Nelo's family traveled for three days by land and canoe through dense jungle and mangrove tributaries arriving in Pampanal about three months ago. The small community on the northwestern border of Ecuador is within one of the nation's poorest and most neglected regions. Though the family of six shares a cramped one-room home with no potable water, they feel safe in Ecuador.

Refugees have long been making Ecuador home, but families such as the Nelos may have a better chance at integrating into Ecuadoran society than those before them, thanks to a government initiative to speed up the process of recognizing refugees.

The $2 million ''Enhanced Registration'' project takes the asylum process to the field and shortens the waiting period -- from several months to just one day -- for a government decision on refugee status to those seeking asylum.

''It is very important that we bring refugees out of invisibility so that they can get jobs and function legally in society,'' said Alfonso Morales, general director of the department for refugees for Ecuador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ``For a long time, they have been vulnerable; without documentation it is very difficult to get legal work and integrate into society.''

While asylum seekers legally have access to public programs, such as health and education, the moment they arrive in Ecuador they are not permitted to work without obtaining a refugee visa. Many find themselves joining the informal sector, where they are enslaved to employers who pay off police to prevent deportation.


Some have been making their way in Ecuador for years without documentation, and many have little knowledge about the application process. They enter the country through ''blind spots'' on the border and never receive information about their rights, or know they have rights but are scared or unable to visit a major city to register. Others fear further persecution or deportation, or are simply unaware they may qualify for asylum.

''The Enhanced Registration is revolutionary in that it brings refugee politics to the border, rather than waiting for the people to come to the government,'' said Xavier Orellana, Spokesman for UNHCR in Ecuador.

''I used to feel like a prisoner here. I was afraid to go out because there may have been police checking papers,'' said Martha Montilla, who had been in Ecuador for five years without documentation until recently being granted a refugee visa through the Enhanced Registration. ``Now I can go anywhere and I don't worry that they'll send me back.''

Since mid-March, more than 4,700 people have received a refugee ID from the Ecuadoran government within the framework of the Enhanced Registration, a figure equal to 20 percent of the total refugee population who have been registered since 2000. The project plans to provide documentation to at least 50,000 Colombian refugees over the course of one year.

Concerns have been raised over whether the process is too speedy to be thorough, easing the requirements for asylum and opening the nation's borders to a flood of new migrants.

Morales insists this is not the case.

``This is not a process of migratory amnesty, it is for people who are already here in Ecuador and have rights. We are recognizing these rights.''

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