QUITO, ECUADOR – Claudia’s* life changed the day she saw a paramilitary group kill a man in her hometown of Buenaventura, one of the most violent places in Colombia.
Not only did she see the killers. Worse, they saw her. They threatened to murder her if she told anyone what she had seen.
She promised not to, of course. But she also knew that witnesses to such acts are rarely allowed to live. So she took her four children and fled to Ecuador.
They have lived in the Ecuadoran capital, Quito, for almost two years. But she still has no job. Employers have told her they will not hire foreigners – much less a Black woman.
Claudia told The New Humanitarian she rarely leaves the single room she shares with her children, fearing she might meet paramilitaries in the street looking for her, or hear locals telling her to go back home.
“For a refugee, too much support is lacking here, morally and psychologically,” she said. “A refugee here loses track of time: so many problems, so many things to think about.”
The government says more than 70,000 recognised refugees live in Ecuador, 97 percent of whom are Colombian. But experts say this population is increasingly forgotten as governments and international aid organisations focus on the region’s more visible Venezuelan migration.
Unlike most of the Venezuelans, the refugees from Colombia are fleeing not poverty but danger.
Despite Colombia’s peace process, fighting continues. The number of internally displaced people in Colombia is second only to Syria. Some 400-500 Colombians continue to cross the border into Ecuador each month to seek asylum, according to official figures. This number has remained constant during the pandemic even though border crossings have been officially closed since March, pushing people to enter through irregular, often dangerous, routes.
According to Paula Moreno Núñez, Ecuador’s representative to Colombia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this is a “fraction” of the real number, as it only counts those who have requested asylum. She said many are unaware they can request asylum, or afraid to approach authorities.
Moreno Núñez said the majority of Colombians seeking refuge in Ecuador are Black, from rural areas often controlled by armed groups. They have “already been abandoned by the Colombian state”, she said, and they continue to be invisible in Ecuador.
Over the years, Ecuador, a signatory of the Geneva convention on refugees, has made various commitments to protect refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. Its 2008 constitution guarantees all foreigners in Ecuador the same rights as local citizens and declares that no human being can be considered illegal.
Despite these commitments, Ecuador’s policies have been “erratic”, Moreno Núñez said. The state recognises refugees, but it does little to protect their rights or integrate them into society. Moreno Núñez estimates that nine in 10 Colombian refugees in Ecuador have never had stable jobs or dignified homes, even after 10 or 20 years.
*Name changed to protect their identity.
(Photo by Jonatan Rosas)