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Head of UNHCR Executive Committee visits refugees in Ecuador

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QUITO, Ecuador, June 7 (UNHCR) - Ambassador Love Mtesa, chairman of UNHCR's Executive Committee, opened a health centre, met Colombian refugees in border areas and held talks with government officials during a visit this week to Ecuador.

The Zambian diplomat kicked off his familiarization trip in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, where he met UNHCR staff, foreign ministry and Refugee Office officials, local partners and donors. He also toured local projects.

On Tuesday, Mtesa visited towns in the oil-rich north-eastern province of Sucumbios, home to tens of thousands of Colombians who have crossed the border to escape conflict in their homeland over the past decade. Their presence has helped strain basic services and health and education facilities.

Mtesa met a community of refugees in the riverside border settlement of Barranca Bermeja before travelling on to the border town of Santa Rosa to inaugurate a health centre supported by UNHCR and to attend the launch of a dental programme being implemented by the Italian agency, Cooperazione Internazionale, and local authorities.

The provincial health director told Mtesa and other guests that a doctor would soon be appointed to work full-time at the three-room facility. UNHCR provided basic medical equipment for the centre, which will benefit more than 8,000 people - many of them Colombian refugees.

During Mtesa's earlier visit to Barranca Bermeja, UNHCR officials met with five nervous Colombian women who said they had just crossed the San Miguel River to escape from an armed group on the Colombian side.

"It is widely known that incursions by armed groups leave behind raped women and other atrocities," said one of the group, a 20-year-old mother of two. "Our children stayed behind. They were in school and we did not have time to bring them with us," she added.

UNHCR officials informed the women about their rights as refugees and about asylum procedures in Ecuador. Their names were registered and they were given food rations, but the women said they planned to cross back and look for their children. Many of the Colombians who cross into Ecuador do not register with UNHCR or the authorities because they are either too scared, located in remote areas or simply do not know about the benefits.

An estimated 250,000 Colombians are in Ecuador after fleeing their homes, but only 45,000 have registered with UNHCR or the authorities. Marta Juarez, UNCHR representative in Ecuador, said the refugee agency was conducting a population survey to determine the real number of those in need of international protection and their location. The results are expected in September.

Mtesa left on Wednesday for Colombia, on the second leg of his Latin America tour. He will meet UNHCR staff, government officials and other partners in Bogota before paying field trips to the Medellin and Choco areas.

Currently made up of 72 member states, the UNHCR Executive Committee (ExCom) meets in Geneva annually to review and approve the agency's programmes and budget, advise on international protection and discuss a wide range of other issues with UNHCR and its intergovernmental and non-governmental partners. ExCom's Standing Committee meets several times each year to carry on ExCom's work between plenary sessions.

By Xavier Orellana
in Quito, Ecuador