For years, Colombians have crossed the border in Ecuador, fleeing violence and conflict in several parts of their country to seek protection and safety. Refugees International documented the spilling over of the Colombia conflict in the summer of 2009
, but most recently the numbers are increasing alarmingly. Since January 2011, an average of 1,500 Colombians have fled into Ecuador every month.
In late 2008 the government of Ecuador decided to dramatically reform its refugee policy and bring tens of thousands of refugees out of limbo. They provided them with personal identification and guaranteed them the right of movement and work. In only one year, through mobile units touring the northern states of the country, more than 26,000 people received refugee visas, half of all the refugees recognized in the country in the last ten years.
I spent almost two weeks in Quito, Ecuador, earlier this month and the scenario has completely changed. There is now a serious rise in xenophobia by the average Ecuadorian. This has been fuelled by a few cases of abuse of the system, including convicted Colombian drug traffickers who received refugee visas and an increasing witch hunt carried out by conservative powerful media outlets.
Refugees in general -- and Colombian refugees in particular -- are also deemed responsible for an increase in urban crime. Even when they carry a refugee visa, employers rarely accept Colombians as workers and landlords demand exorbitant conditions before renting housing to them. Children of Colombian parents are often discriminated against in school and Colombian girls are accused of being prostitutes because of their different and more liberal dress code.
To contrast this situation, the UN Refugee Agency, non-governmental organizations and church groups have been carrying out a public campaign to explain why people are forced to become refugees and the extreme suffering and tragedy they experience. The municipality of the capital Quito has also engaged in a similar campaign, but all of these efforts have had limited impact. Many government officials I talked to admitted that refugees deserve assistance and protection, but the political cost of being seen helping refugees is considered political suicide.
What to do then? First, never single out refugees as exclusive recipients of assistance. This is particularly true in Ecuador, where there are no refugee camps and those fleeing settle within poor local communities. Resources must be channeled to strengthen basic services for the community as a whole, such as schools, a health center or a housing improvement scheme.
Second, develop a narrative that focuses on the positive skills and contribution that the refugee group can bring to the host society. This is not made of words only but by creating opportunities for encounters between host and refugee communities. The array of agencies helping refugees need to operate in neighborhoods and utilize community spaces to foster activities of mutual understanding and sharing of experiences.
Finally, financial investments need to be translated into tangible results and benefits for the host communities. These results help foster an understanding that the improvements benefit everyone and encourage a more welcoming attitude toward refugees.
Ecuador clearly had the best intentions with its original policy reform. With a few additional changes, officials can ensure that helping refugees will lead -- not to political suicide -- but to better lives for their entire communities.
July 01, 2011
| Tagged as: Colombia, Ecuador, Americas, Humanitarian Response