I wrote some weeks ago about my March trip to Tunisia and Egypt to monitor humanitarian assistance to people fleeing the violence in Libya. That trip, which was planned on short notice, came on the heels of an earlier mission to Ecuador and Colombia, between February 26 and March 3. As critically important as are the humanitarian issues surrounding Libya, I didn’t want my involvement in Libya to prevent me from reporting on the earlier mission to Ecuador and Colombia. Hence, this somewhat delayed letter about that trip, and the work of the work the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the Andes region.
Refugees from Colombia cross at numerous points along the border in the Lago Agrio District,
some making quick trips to escape immediate crises and others seeking long-term refuge.
In Ecuador and Colombia, I sought to review the ongoing humanitarian challenges confronting displaced Colombians – refugees in Ecuador and internally displaced people in Colombia. Decades of conflict in Colombia have resulted in the displacement of millions of people from their homes – to urban centers, small towns and villages, and in some cases across international borders. During the trip, the work of PRM’s partners focused my attention on the importance of an integrated approach to resolving protracted humanitarian situations, and of seizing opportunities to develop local capacity for effective response.
In Ecuador, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 1,000 people – the large majority of whom are Colombian – request asylum each month. And some 40% of the overall refugee population settles in one of the three provinces along the northern border areas near Colombia. Large numbers of Colombian refugees are also in neighborhoods of Quito and Guayaquil, and the diversity of challenges creates the need for differentiated strategies in finding durable solutions. Moreover, poverty within the Ecuadoran population in many areas increases the complexity of providing education, health, and security services, and many refugees continue to be haunted by memories of the violence and insecurity that drove them from their homes.
This brave and determined woman shared her story with me.
Women-headed households are particularly vulnerable. During my visit to the town of Lago Agrio, near the Colombian border, I visited with one young mother of eight children. In her spare but tidy household, boards were nailed across the threshold to keep the youngest children from wandering outside, and the laundry she takes in every day hangs to dry from the security grates on the home’s windows and on lines strung across the yard. She keeps the youngest children home from school because she cannot pay to transport them safely to the nearest elementary school. Fortunately, the dedicated UNHCR team in Lago Agrio is working with an equally impressive group of local authority representatives to improve access to schools for refugee and local families so that situations such as this can become less common in the region.
While in Lago Agrio, I also observed food distribution efforts and a health and nutrition seminar for refugee
IRD delivers emergency commodities along with a message: No violence against women.
Local government authorities are working hard to provide services to this growing population. In fact, I was struck time and again in Ecuador by the sincere effort made by local, provincial, and national government officials who speak of the Colombian refugees they host as their brothers and sisters, and who are making efforts to include refugee beneficiaries in their initiatives for local populations.
For example, the mayor of Lago Agrio is working closely with local teams from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide a range of critical services to both Colombian refugees and their Ecuadorian hosts. Schools include refugee children and the children of the local population. Conditions are not perfect, discrimination is a continual challenge, and – especially at the national level – a much greater level of effort on refugee registration and assistance is required. I raised these and other issues during my visit to Quito, where I met with senior officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. In light of the progress made at those meetings, recent and unfortunate actions by the government of Ecuador to declare the U.S. Ambassador "persona non grata" was most regrettable, but does not diminish the imperative of continued forward movement on these critical humanitarian issues.
In Colombia, PRM is seeking to identify and address critical humanitarian assistance gaps and support capacity-building within local and national government institutions, civil society, and associations of internally displaced people (IDPs) – the goal, of course, is improvement of the quality of assistance and services available for IDPs. In the coastal city of Tumaco, I had the opportunity to witness these efforts first-hand, reflected in the work of PRM partner International Relief and Development (IRD)
IRD is everywhere in Tumaco: helping the government's Orientation and Assistance Unit (UAO, as it is known in Spanish) to reach out to IDPs, promoting effective integration of aid among UNHCR and other international partners, and working in IDP neighborhoods to provide basic assistance, identify gaps in services, and help to bring together local officials and vulnerable communities. During my visit, a "UAO in the Barrio" campaign that IRD has supported brought mobile units of government to various sites throughout Tumaco, making services available to those who would otherwise have struggled to access them due to the difficulty and expense of transportation.
These two dental hygienists see over 100 patients a day during a typical "OAU in the Barrio."
The displaced persons I met in Tumaco clearly continue to live in fear of return to their home areas. At the same time, the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos has expressed a commitment to sustain and strengthen efforts to assist vulnerable communities, and to address some of the complex causes of Colombia’s internal conflict. For example, a Victims’ Law and a land restitution law currently under consideration in the Colombian Congress would provide for reparations and land restitution to many of those impacted by the conflict. Of course, initiatives like this one will have to be accompanied by effective security measures, to ensure that beneficiaries – and their advocates – are protected from harm by forces resisting social change.
I discussed these and related issues at length in my meeting in Bogota with GOC officials, including Diego Molano, the head of the Colombia's presidential development agency, Acción Social. While there is so much to be done, I was encouraged by the determination of Diego and his team to promote more meaningful opportunities for social and economic development for all of Colombia’s vulnerable communities. And I’m gratified that PRM and other U.S. government offices have been such long-standing partners to these efforts.
Small businesses in Tumaco frequently offer the best means for displaced people to generate income.
In fact, with the strong support of and in partnership with the U.S. Congress, the Obama Administration provided more than $80 million in humanitarian and other assistance to Colombian IDPs and refugees in the region in fiscal year 2010. PRM alone provided over $36 million to international humanitarian organizations and NGOs, including $10.3 million to UNHCR and $7.2 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In Colombia, USAID and its partners provide non-emergency, longer-term social and economic assistance following the first several months of displacement – including over $45 million specifically for IDP and other vulnerable populations programs in the last fiscal year.
The coordinated initiatives I saw in Ecuador and Colombia – especially the work of IRD and their partners in Tumaco – is exactly the kind of effort we should be promoting around the world. True partnership between NGOs and local governments, focused ultimately on enabling officials to respond more effectively to the needs of vulnerable populations, is such a valuable tool to promote social and economic progress. These and other efforts will continue to enjoy our strong support in the months and years ahead.
Many thanks, and kind regards,
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration