In November 2010, a delegation of Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) members, including LIRS Vice President for Protection and Programs Susan Krehbiel went on a mission to Panama and Ecuador in order to learn more about, and bring greater attention to, the protection and resettlement needs of Colombian refugees. Yesterday, in an event hosted by the Migration Policy Institute, delegation members Shaina Aber (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA) and Melanie Nezer (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) shared their findings on the dire situation of Colombian refugees in Panama and Ecuador, and Andrea Lari (Refugees International) provided background information on Colombia.
Due to the emergence of criminal gangs and Colombia’s nearly 50-year-long armed conflict between guerillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian security forces, over four million Colombians in the last two decades have been persecuted and internally displaced or forced to flee to neighboring countries like Panama and Ecuador.
Unfortunately, fleeing to neighboring countries like Panama and Ecuador has not provided Colombian refugees with adequate relief or protection. Most refugees who have fled Colombia cannot safely return home due to the country’s instability. Panama’s asylum system is extremely flawed; its narrow definition of refugee means that only 2 percent of asylum claims are successful and the process takes between one to three years. Even if a refugee is granted protection, that protection is limited and it does not lead to permanent status or citizenship. Colombian refugees in Panama are confined to the dangerous southern jungle region and do not have access to employment, health care or education.
Ecuador recognizes the largest number of refugees in Latin America. However, protection is limited and refugee status is only temporary. Similarly to Colombian refugees in Panama, Colombian refugees in Ecuador have limited access to employment, healthcare and education. In both Panama and Ecuador, Afro-Colombian refugees face greater discrimination and xenophobia, and refugee women and girls are especially at risk for sexual exploitation and abuse.
It is clear that Colombian refugees need greater assistance from the international community. The Panamanian and Ecuadorian governments are struggling to adequately integrate and resettle Colombian refugees. For some, resettling to a third country is currently the only option for refugees to safely rebuild their lives. The United States, being a world leader in providing humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement, must not cut funding for international refugee protection and humanitarian aid. Furthermore, in 2009 the United States resettled only 57 Colombian refugees and in 2010 only 123. It should resettle more Colombian refugees.
To take action in support of Colombian refugees, visit the LIRS Action Center.
To learn more about the event, please visit here.
To read about Susan Krehbiel’s experience in Panama and Ecuador, click here.