(Washington, D.C.) March 23, 2011 — The plight of Colombian refugees and displaced persons is the most persistent humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere; it may also be one of the most ignored in the world. In just the last two decades, the nearly 50-year-long armed conflict among guerillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces has resulted in the targeted persecution and internal and cross-border displacement of more than five million Colombians.
Panama — From Danger to Despair
The government of Panama confines Colombian refugees who cross into Panama to the Darien, a jungle region on the border. The picturesque setting is not, however, the idyllic refuge among trees and rivers that it appears to be. The Los Angeles Times described the area as “a chaos of deadly snakes, caimans, crocs, narco-traffickers, mercenaries, guerrillas and bandits.” It is impassable by car; the only way to get from one village to another is by boat.
In the small Darien town of Jaque, children have no access to secondary education. Health care is minimal, and many children suffer from parasitic diseases. Of the Colombian refugees living in Jaque, 863 are under a special state of confinement imposed on them by the Panamanian government called Temporary Humanitarian Protection (PTH). They are not allowed to leave their village, to work, or to access even the most basic of services.
Most of these refugees fled to Panama ten years ago or more to escape targeted attacks on their villages by guerrillas and paramilitaries. Trapped between these vicious groups, many of the refugees lost loved ones to massacres and were driven from their mineral rich land.
“I am anchored here and can’t offer myself, my gifts. I was a jeweler in Colombia and organized a jeweler’s association,” said Raul, a recent asylum-seeker. Without access to a market, Raul must rely on charitable support for survival.
Helen, a 58 year old woman who has lived in Jaque since 1998, said she has no hope for the future, and says her people live "like slaves" in Panama. They have no access to heath care, food assistance or jobs. Helen’s gaunt frame bore witness to her tale of constant hunger and desperation. She simply wants a chance to leave the jungle and find a future for her family. Despite her circumstances she said she prefers life in confinement in Panama to life in Colombia.
"There I lived with the constant nightmare of death. Here I can sleep through the night though I often go hungry," Helen said.
Another woman, Adelina, has a son with a serious kidney condition that requires nightly dialysis treatment at home. She must also send him to Panama City every month for overnight treatment at the hospital. Although Adelina’s family is not allowed to move to Panama City, she has permission to travel with him to the city on these occasions. However, she can seldom afford the cost two plane tickets and is forced to send her nine-year-old alone to the city for the treatment.
Her son's condition has caused her to consider returning to Colombia, despite the danger. She fears that continued confinement in the jungle will endanger the life of her son, as it is so far from any medical professional who can help him in any emergency.
"I fear return, after all we lost, of course I fear return, and my husband will not go back, but these are the choices we are forced to make," Adelina said.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Colombian refugees who do live in Panama City lack any legal status, and like those in the border regions, must subsist without access to legal employment, health care, or education. Many Colombians living in the capital report discrimination and xenophobia, stating that they are often assumed to be drug dealers, prostitutes or guerilla organization members.
Rogelio has been in Panama City for two years but has not yet received refugee status. He has no work permit and no job and has turned to the church for occasional assistance with shelter and food. Like many in similar circumstances, he is deeply depressed by his inability to find a job because he very much wants to support himself.
Documented cases of refoulement — the forced return of a person by the authorities to the country where he or she faces the threat of persecution — raise issues of serious concern. In October 2010, thirty young Colombians who crossed into Panama fleeing FARC guerillas were forcibly repatriated, without even being allowed to enter the asylum adjudication process. Panamanian officials stated that if the group were to make “repeated attempts” to cross the border would this prove their real need for international protection. This statement indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic international refugee protection framework and Panama’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.
Refugees in Panama suffer from a restrictive protection environment, a broken asylum system that grants recognition to only 2% of refugee applicants annually, and a lack of durable solutions, such as integration into Panamanian society or resettlement to another country. Highly vulnerable individuals with valid refugee claims including single women, female-headed households, those with chronic medical conditions and persons with disabilities, the frail elderly, and children must endure the consequences of a lack of legal and physical protection.
Ecuador – “Between the Bullet and the Street”
Mateo had been a teacher before fleeing Colombia for Quito, Ecuador. “Our choice is no choice at all. We are caught between the bullet and the street. Both will land you in the coffin,” Mateo said of his experience as a homeless and jobless refugee, surviving discrimination and xenophobia in Quito.
The government of Ecuador has taken significant steps to recognize Colombian refugees, address a growing backlog of refugee applicants, improve its outreach to refugee communities, and enshrine a refugee rights framework into domestic law. Nonetheless, many refugees still lack effective access to the most basic rights, and Colombian refugees too often find that their physical security is threatened within Ecuador’s borders.
Refugee agencies have assisted in the relocation of several hundred refugees in the last year in response to the threats to their physical security within Ecuador at the hands of Colombian armed groups. Such relocation has not always resolved these security issues; there have been a number of cases in which refugees were targeted by Colombian persecutors after internal relocation in Ecuador.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is rampant in the border province of Sucumbios. A recent study indicated that 94.5% of refugee women in the province have experienced SGBV in throughout their lives. In 2009 a refugee woman died in police custody. The coroner’s first report indicated that the woman was raped and that her skull was fractured. When it became evident that only police had access to her cell, the coroner changed his report and concluded that the woman had ‘committed suicide’ while in police custody. Three policemen initially accused of the rape and murder were exonerated.
In December 2010 the government of Ecuador launched a campaign to prevent SGBV. Without the support of the judiciary and the cooperation of local governments however, the campaign faces a difficult battle.
The lives of refugee children are also often marred by violence. Refugee parents cite fear of forced recruitment of their children by armed groups as a major concern in border provinces. One refugee mother, Maria, sought a way to get her daughter Juanita out of the border town where she had, despite all obstacles, just finished high school.
"I need to get my daughter out of this town. She just turned 17 and I’m afraid that if I can’t get her to a better place, into a university or higher education, she will fall prey to bad things, bad people," Maria said.
Juanita was actually one of the lucky children. Few Colombian refugees have the opportunity to complete a secondary education, and this lack of schooling is one of the factors limiting the ability of the Colombian refugee population to build a better future.
While refugees in small towns face more than their share of hardship, the situation of Afro-Colombians is particularly grim in the capital city of Quito; xenophobic stereotypes result in pervasive discrimination in the urban setting. Tavio, a documented refugee in Quito reported constant harassment and threats by police who have stopped him on multiple occasions.
During one stop, the police removed him from a bus and asked him for his wallet and his documents. The authorities then required him to remove his shoes. “They took my money and made me walk home shoeless,” Tavio said.
Emilia, a refugee in Quito, complained of constant job discrimination. “If you are a Colombian woman, you are [believed to be] a prostitute. No one wants you in their house. Not even to clean. The constant rejection has been very hard,” she said.
Improved access to employment, housing, healthcare and education are central to ensuring the successful integration of Colombian refugees. To help achieve such access, Jesuit Refugee Service is supporting several refugee and host-community organizations focused on bringing opportunities to the population.
For some Colombian refugees, resettlement to a third country is the only option to achieve adequate protection. Ecuador clearly lacks sufficient capacity and resources to support the growing number of Colombians seeking sanctuary. Ecuador currently ranks second in the world on UNHCR’s list of situation where there is a large disparity between resettlement needs and resettlement opportunities.
Recommendations for Action
• The U.S. should raise refugee concerns as a priority issue in diplomatic relations with Panama, advocating for reform of the asylum system and addressing xenophobia in addition to demanding improvements in the protection and assistance provided to vulnerable refugees. U.S. foreign assistance to Panama should be structured so as to encourage refugee protection and development opportunities for both refugee and host communities in need.
• UNHCR should establish a resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Panama and increase its presence in the Darien, as should NGOs and other U.N. agencies, prioritizing access to durable solutions for the 863 people that have Temporary Humanitarian Protection status in the border region.
• UNHCR should ensure that refugee children receive Best Interest Determinations that take into consideration durable solutions, family reunification, and permanency planning in both Panama and Ecuador.
• The U.S. should increase assistance to Ecuador in recognition of its effort to expand the protection space for refugees, and in recognition of the needs it has identified. The U.S. should increase the use of resettlement as a strategic protection tool for Colombian refugees in Ecuador by increasing its own response and by supporting resettlement within the region.
• For those who can safely remain in Ecuador, the U.S. should fund efforts aimed at integrating Colombian refugees into Ecuadorian society, placing special emphasis on livelihoods, housing, education, access to naturalization, and combating xenophobia.
• U.N. agencies and NGOs should expand their presence on the Ecuador-Colombia border to increase protection for refugee and host communities. The UN and U.S. should work with the Ecuadorian government to expand protection for survivors of SGBV by increasing the capacity of local police and prosecutors to respond to cases of SGBV; training security forces about SGBV; and, providing access to safe housing and income generating opportunities for women.