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Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 00:35 UK

Ecuador holds big drive to register Colombian refugees

By Irene Caselli
Ibarra, Ecuador

People register at the sports hall in Ibarra
Getting a visa means Colombians can start building their lives in Ecuador

It is the start of an important day for 100 Colombian refugees and their families here in Ibarra, an Ecuadorean city half-way between the capital city, Quito, and the Colombian border.

As they enter the Luis Leoro Franco sports hall, they know that by the end of the day they will find out if they can stay in the country with a refugee visa.

It is extraordinarily quiet, despite the presence of many children, and the tension is high. As they wait to be interviewed, most do not want to share their stories. Eventually one woman smiles and agrees to go to a corner to talk.

Paulina, 33, fled Colombia last July, soon after her husband was killed outside her home in the Valle del Cauca region, some 600km (460 miles) north of Ibarra.

"He never told me what his job was. As long as they bring money home, one never asks where it comes from," she says.

Paulina says her husband often had weapons on him, and a few days before his death he started hiding at home and refusing to pick up calls.

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"He was killed around the corner from our house, I heard the bullets. I left him there, I couldn't go out," says Paulina. She picked up her eight-year-old daughter and all the clothes she could grab and went to her mother's home in Cali.

"From there my landlady told me that they were looking for me, I imagine they were looking for something that my husband had hidden at home," she says.

Paulina is happy to talk because she has already received her refugee visa. She is here to accompany a friend - a younger woman with a broken knee and visible bruises on her body.

The friend does not want to talk about herself, but Paulina says that she deserves to be recognised as a refugee too.

Displaced people

Ecuador has the highest number of refugees in Latin America - a consequence of the ongoing conflict in Colombia between guerrillas, paramilitary squads and the state.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Colombia has one of the world's largest internally displaced populations, estimated at more than three million.

Another 500,000 to 750,000 have fled to other countries, according to the Refugee Council USA, a US-based coalition of NGOs.

Ecuador is a preferred destination both for its geographical proximity to the troubled southern Colombian regions of Putumayo and Narino and for the relatively easy migration process.

An estimated 135,000 people have crossed into Ecuador, the UNHCR says.

A year ago, just 22,000 people were registered. That now stands at 50,000 thanks to a registration drive launched by the Ecuadorean government with the help of the UNHCR.

Mobile units of civil servants have gone to remote areas of the country to speed up the process, shortening the waiting period for refugee claims from several months to just a few hours.

Colombians who have fled the country for fear of persecution are granted access to public health and education from the moment they set foot in Ecuador.

Brothels

But registration remains crucial because they are not allowed to work until granted a refugee visa, and they can become easy prey for illegal employers.

Paulina says that she was offered work in brothels - something that happens quite often to Colombian women upon their arrival.

Ligia Aurora with her registration papers
Ligia Aurora is optimistic about her new life in Ecuador

She was lucky enough to find a Colombian family in the town of Atuntaqui, just south of Ibarra, who took her in as a maid although she didn't have the right papers.

Many others are not as lucky, especially in the border areas with Colombia, where living conditions are challenging even for the Ecuadorean population.

The Ecuadorean government says that refugees have become an economic burden in areas that are already economically disadvantaged. The refugee question is a stumbling block in the rapprochement between Colombia and Ecuador.

The two countries have had strained relations since March 2008, when the Colombian army carried out an unauthorised cross-border raid on a rebel camp.

Ecuadorean authorities say that Colombia should be spending more money to help people who have fled the country, while at the same time strengthening its presence in the southern regions, where the fighting between guerrillas and paramilitary squads leads many to abandon their homes.

Colombia has given the UNHCR funding of $600,000 (£390,000) over the past 10 years - an average 50 cents (33p)per refugee per year - to help pay for integration projects.

That is an infinitesimal amount, says Alfonso Morales, who heads the department for refugees at Ecuador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By contrast, he says, the Ecuadorean government spends $40m (£26m) a year on Colombian refugees, much going to education and healthcare.

"These sums show a lack of respect (by the Colombian government) towards these Colombian people. It is detrimental for them, but it is also detrimental for Ecuador, which is a country with high levels of poverty and unemployment and problems of infrastructure," said Mr Morales.

The Colombian foreign ministry was asked for a response but officials said there was no one available as it was Easter week and they were busy dealing with the release of hostages by the Farc, the largest of the country's guerrilla groups.

Integration

The registration project, which ended on 31 March, has been successful but there is still lots to do, says Mr Morales.

Young child draws on the ground while the registration process takes place
The tension of the day passed some of the people by

The UNHCR and the government agree that the next priority is to decentralise the system so that smaller offices in the border areas can hand out refugee visas more quickly to the 85,000 who are still unregistered.

There also needs to be more monitoring of refugees once they have received their documents, with a focus on projects aimed at social and economic integration, says Mr Morales.

But the future is for once not a worry for those in the sports hall who walk out with their new Ecuadorean IDs in their hands.

Ligia can hardly contain her smile as she hugs her two children, Luis Carlos and Diego Camilo. When they escaped violence in their town in the eastern region of Boyaca just a few weeks ago, Diego Camilo, who is only 10, had to leave school.

"I'm so happy now, I can finally enrol my little one back in school," says Ligia. "I was so worried when we came here. Now all will be well."



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