The issue of Colombian refugees in Ecuador is a unique one, with a unique set of problems. In most refugee situations, the UNHCR has refugee camps, or “tent cities” set up to receive the refugees. These camps have the facilities and resources to address most of the needs of a refugee, and provide tents as temporary and immediate housing, food, and medical attention as needed. Unique to the Colombia situation, the UNHCR does not have refugee camps set up to receive the refugees filtering across the borders of Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama. Fleeing Colombians must make it on their own, settling in unofficial and unsupported camps as they do in the jungles of Venezuela, or in large cities such as Quito, Ecuador.
Once here, Colombians face the challenge of establishing themselves in Ecuador, a struggle that can extend years after their initial arrival. They face discrimination in the work place based on age and nationality, making finding a steady job one of the biggest challenges. Though many worked in professional, blue-collar jobs in Colombia, few companies are willing to hire men and women forty and up, especially men and women with refugee visas. Former bankers and economists can rarely find the same type of work, instead finding jobs as waiters or taking in laundry if they are lucky.
This means that many refugees seek a loan to help them start their own small business endeavor, and avoid the difficulties of the Ecuadorian job market. Unfortunately, banks rarely lend to anyone who hasn’t been nationalized, a costly process that most refugees avoid because to nationalize is to lose all the protections offered by a refugee visa.
Quito is not an optimal place for Colombian refugees; due to its proximity to the Colombian border many refugees find that their problems very easily follow them here. Standing in a food assistance line, a refugee runs the risk of running into the same person who killed their brother in Colombia, standing in the same line and getting the same assistance. For this reason many Colombians fear association with other Colombians here in Quito, as a familiar face means it’s time to run once again. Families that have been living in relative comfort for nine years here in Ecuador have had to uproot their lives and flee, and all refugees live with the knowledge that danger could arise at a moments notice.
The people who come to Quito are usually average citizens who got caught in the middle of the now 60-year Colombian conflict. They had land, sons, or status that attracted the attention of the FARC, paramilitary, or guerrilla forces, and in response to death threats or death attempts, had to leave the country. They do not come here with an aid agency, but usually have gathered a few belongings and left with a days notice, coming here alone or with their family depending on the scope of the threat. A large percentage of Colombians in Ecuador are what are know as “economic migrants,” farmers displaced from their land due to the effects of Plan Colombia, a U.S. sponsored initiative that works to destroy cocaine crops, and in the process contaminates neighboring farmlands. Though many refugees are living in situations of extreme danger here, constantly changing location to avoid the daily threats of aggressors who followed them from Colombia, third-country resettlement is especially difficult for Colombians in Ecuador, based on the scope of the crisis and the standards Ecuador uses in approving refugee visas. To be considered for resettlement, a Ecuadorian-recognized refugee must make a new testimony and practically relive the registration process, and all this just to determine if they qualify as a refugee by international standards. Thus is born the “invisible crisis” of Colombian refugees in Ecuador; an unheard population with neither the means to move forward nor to get out.