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Spotlight on Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador

Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The following is a report from Refugee Council USA. 

[An update to this report was published in July 2013]

(Washington, D.C.) March 23, 2011 — Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 26 U.S. non-governmental organizations — including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA —  focused on refugee protection, sent a delegation of RCUSA members and a representative of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) to visit Panama and Ecuador from November 1-9, 2010. The mission’s purpose was to learn more about, and bring increased attention to the complex protection and resettlement needs of Colombian refugees. 

The delegation went to Panama and Ecuador because RCUSA and CCR recognize that the plight of Colombian refugees and displaced persons is arguably the most persistent humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. While many policy makers are aware that Colombia’s nearly 50-year-long armed conflict between guerillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces has resulted in the targeted persecution and displacement of over four million Colombians in the last two decades, the spill-over effects of the conflict and the growing refugee crisis in the region has received little attention from the international community. Approximately 500,000 Colombian refugees have fled to neighboring 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.

The delegation first conducted meetings in Panama City and in Panama’s Darien Gap border region, and then travelled to Ecuador where it conducted meetings in Quito and in two border communities, San Lorenzo and Lago Agrio. In both countries, the delegation met with refugees, NGOs, government representatives, and with United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives.

The RCUSA delegation found that Colombians who cross by land into Panama seeking asylum continue to be confined by the government to the dangerous southern jungle region, living in camp-like conditions but without the basic assistance and services usually provided to refugees.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of Colombian refugees who live in Panama City lack legal recognition, and subsist without access to employment, health care, or education.  Too often they are the victims of xenophobia and exclusion and are blamed for all violent crime in Panama. Throughout the country, Colombian refugees live under the constant threat of deportation and refoulement.

RCUSA also noted that while the government of Ecuador has taken significant steps to provide legal status and protection to refugees, approximately half of the estimated 250,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador live along the porous Ecuador-Colombia border or in other areas where the security situation leaves them vulnerable.  Regardless of their status, Colombian refugees in Ecuador also often suffer from xenophobic-based discrimination, including limited access to the labor market, health care, and education. Of particular concern are Afro-Colombian refugees, unaccompanied Colombian minors, and refugee women at risk of exploitation, including victims of trafficking.  The specter of forced returns now haunts Colombian refugees in Ecuador, as only days after our delegation departed, Ecuador’s Director General for Refugees, citing the inability of Ecuador to continue to find resources for a swiftly growing refugee population, announced the intention of Ecuador to cooperate with Colombia in the return of some 15,000 Colombian refugees to three Colombian departments that were among the hardest hit last year by guerilla and paramilitary attacks on civilians.

This report includes recommendations, detailed descriptions about each portion of the mission, organized according by country, and case studies. 

Use the links below or to the right to read the report. Click the image below to download a PDF of the report.

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Click the image to download a PDF of the report