The Colombian refugee situation

Source: ICMC Europe, Welcome to Europe! A comprehensive guide to resettlement, 2013

Nearly 50 years of armed conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian army resulted in the movement of over 4 million Colombians - both within Colombia and across its borders - since 1985. Around half a million have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly to Ecuador, but also to Costa Rica, Panama and Venezuela. At present, approximately 70,000 Colombian refugees are registered with UNHCR in the region.

While the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries has decreased in recent years, the need for protection remains high. Although members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have resumed peace negotiations with representatives of the Colombian government in June 2013, continued violence in some parts of Colombia makes that voluntary repatriation is not the preferred solution for most Colombian refugees.

Prospects for local integration are also limited. Ecuador has the largest population of recognised refugees in Latin America, 98% of whom are Colombians. Since 2010, there has been a rapid deterioration in the asylum and protection space for Colombian refugees in Ecuador. While it is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, the government recently modified its Refugee Act to remove the expanded refugee definition set out in the Declaration. It has severely restricted access to the domestic asylum procedure, meaning many Colombians are not legally recognised as refugees and are unable to access basic services. Many live in inaccessible jungle settings in border areas, and are vulnerable to armed conflict between Colombian factions crossing into Ecuador. They also suffer through poor living conditions, a lack of access to health services, and very limited livelihood opportunities. Violence against Colombian refugee women and girls in Ecuador is widespread. Secondary movements of Colombian refugees within Ecuador are common, and Colombian refugees generally suffer racism and discrimination, including police harassment in some areas.

The lack of local integration prospects for Colombian refugees in Ecuador has thus become a protection issue, and resettlement remains an important durable solution for some. Of particular concern are Afro-Colombian refugees, unaccompanied minors and refugee women at risk of exploitation.

In 2012, 559 Colombian refugees were resettled. In total, UNHCR plans to submit 2,054 Colombian refugees for resettlement in 2014, of whom 2,000 are in Ecuador. A lack of UNHCR capacity and a significant population of unregistered individuals make the ongoing assessment of resettlement needs challenging.

In 2011, Colombian refugees were identified as one of the populations prioritised for resettlement. A Contact Group, chaired by the Governments of New Zealand and Uruguay was formed in February 2012 with the aim of maximising the strategic use of resettlement of Colombians in Ecuador. Although several EU Member States resettle Colombian refugees, the EU has not included this population as a priority for 2013. The EU does, however, offer substantial humanitarian aid and assistance via ECHO.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Uruguay and the US have resettled Colombian refugees. In Europe, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have resettled refugees from Ecuador.

Photo: Colombian refugees in Ecuador. © B.Heger/UNHCR