Ecuador: Colombia refugees stage weeks-long protest against UNHCR (Al Jazeera)

QUITO, ECUADOR – Gina Pena said she was leaving a humanitarian aid office in Ecuador‘s capital Quito one day when she saw the man who had threatened her life back in Colombia.

“If I open my mouth, he’ll cut my family up. That’s what he told me,” Pena recalled, adding she no longer feels safe in the city.

Pena, 37, fled to Ecuador a year and a half ago with her three children after receiving several death threats from members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest active armed rebel group.

She knew the threats were real, as she has lived through one of Colombia’s worst armed conflicts. She said her father was disappeared when she was seven, she was brutally raped and almost killed when she was 11 and her family was displaced three times within Colombia due to the violence.

When Pena arrived in Ecuador, she knew she was not far enough from her threats, so she applied for the United Nations refugee agency’s (UNHCR) resettlement programme, whereby they transfer refugees in asylum countries to another state that has agreed to admit them and grant permanent settlement.

But in September of 2018, Pena received her official rejection by the UNHCR to be relocated.

According to the letter, which Pena showed Al Jazeera, her case “does not meet the criteria for resettlement”. No other explanation was given.

“If the UNHCR doesn’t help me, they’re going to kill me,” she told Al Jazeera, “From here, I have nowhere else to flee.”

Weeks-long protest

Pena’s story is unique, but she is not alone. She is one of dozens of Colombian refugees who have been protesting in front of the UNHCR’s office in Quito since June 1.

They say the global refugee agency is not taking the threats against their lives seriously, and they refuse to leave until the UNHCR promises to relocate them to another country.

The group of protesters, which includes 39 women and 29 men, as well as 40 children, have been occupying the space day and night, saying their homes are not safe to return to.

They sleep in makeshift tents on the pavement at night, hold up signs for passing cars during the day, and occasionally face the UNHCR offices to sing the Colombian national anthem.

Despite the peace agreement that was signed between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, violence has continued in many parts of the country.

Colombia has reported the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, the UN said in a report on Wednesday. More than 190,000 people have fled the country due to continued violence, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Some of the violence has been concentrated in the southern states of Narino, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Meta, where most of the refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR are from.

These are also areas that have high rates of poverty and large Afro Colombian populations.


(Photo Credit: Jonatan Rosas)


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