Voices - Columbian Refugees in Ecuador

A look at the status quo in Columbia
through the eyes of  a border worker

By Levi Butts

Ninety percent of refugees don't want to return to Columbia.
Instead, they will stay in Ecuador, attempting to make new lives
away from the drug trade of their old home.

Thousands of Colombian refugees cross the border into Ecuador each day.

In hopes of helping these people ACNUR set up offices in the areas identified to have the highest numbers of refugees.

Some are small field stations, some are outposts, and others are multistory headquarters.

In one ACNUR office, an employee agreed to be interviewed. The office location and the employee’s name and position must remain confidential to protect his personal and employment security.

Therefore, here he will be called The ACNUR Man.

In this section he discusses the cur- rent situation refugees face and how ACNUR tries to help.

The ACNUR Man is Ecuadorian and an academic.

His mind is sharp and his speech flows quickly.

In addition to his native language, Spanish, he also speaks English and French. Understanding many American idiomatic expressions, his English is witty.

He is globally minded, nationalistic and quick to smile. After brief introduc- tions are made, the interview begins.

The data and definitions flow from his mouth.

The numbers and statistics are exact and unwavering, as if read from the ACNUR website.

He tells of the thousands of Colombians who come to Ecuador seeking asylum. ACNUR provides the asylum seekers with assistance and tries to help them communicate with the Ecuadorian government.

The ACNUR Man says that the gov- ernment is the only entity that has the power to grant asylum.

ACNUR does not have the authority to do so.

As such, they provide assistance to Colombians but cannot grant them any legal status.

The ACNUR Man discusses the dis- tinctions made between groups of Colombians who enter Ecuador.

He says there are two kinds of Colombians coming into Ecuador. There are economic immigrants look- ing for work and refugees in need of protection.

According to The ACNUR Man, both types of people are considered refu- gees.

As refugees they are entitled to, by Ecuadorian law and ACNUR official policy, protection and assistance.

The ACNUR Man says, "ACNUR supports the government in fulfilling their responsibility to care for refu- gees."

The Ecuadorian constitution clearly states that any person within the bor- ders of Ecuador falls under the protec- tion of the government and receives access to all of the rights a citizen has.

The ACNUR Man says once in Ecuador Colombians face persecution, social injustice and economic despera- tion.

Many are discriminated against, espe- cially women and afro-Colombians. Anti-Colombian violence, xenophobia, sexual harassment, rape and labor dis- crimination are all commonplace in the lives of many Colombians living in Ecuador.

Refugees struggle to survive on a daily basis; many are forced to resort to prostitution and other illicit activities.

Yet, according to The ACNUR Man, 90% of refugees do not want to return to Colombia.

Life in Colombia is far worse than all of the hardships that many face Ecuador.

ACNUR works hard, says The ACNUR Man.

They are making a difference. The organization offers humanitarian and economic assistance.

They have created small business ini- tiatives and social programs including: micro-loan and seed money programs, free business lectures and social sup- port networks.

"The situation is tough," The ACNUR Man says "but the programs are work- ing and help thousands of people every day."

The ACNUR man sits across from the interviewers.

A generic office desk is between them. Information rolls from his mind, across the table and onto pages of rapidly taken notes. For security reasons all electronics were checked at the gates, so it is paper and pen for the reporters.

The ACNUR man delivers his answers in an objective, almost robot- ic way. Aware of all the standard questions, he is well versed on the proper ACNUR approved responses. His sharp mind has the dates and numbers memorized; the answers all seem well rehearsed.

Removing himself from the equa- tion, he calmly responds thoroughly to each question and avoids all chanc- es to ruffle any feathers.

As the interview seems to be reach- ing a conclusion the question, "Why does the Colombian Civil War exist?" is asked. There is a slight change in the ACNUR man.

He temporarily avoids the question and asks about purpose and audience of the project once more. His demean- or seems to shift. The objective, nearly robotic ACNUR representative begins showing signs of human thoughts. A brief smile appears.

The ACNUR man seems to be flirt- ing with the temptation to tell his true thoughts, even if it does mean ruffling feathers. The energy in the room is suddenly high. The interviews are on the edges of their seats.

Suddenly the ACNUR man abruptly stands and moves toward the door. The interview seems to be drawing to a close, but when he reaches the door, rather than thanking the inter- viewers and showing them out in his best official ACNUR voice, he slowly closes the door. The energy in the room soars. The ACNUR man returns to his seat, smiles once more and begins to share his thoughts about the Colombian Civil War.

He says, "United States’ involve- ment in South America caused the Colombian Civil War."

The ACNUR man indicates that American anti-leftist interventionism has caused several civil wars in the region.

"America is to blame," he says. He makes the point that the American government has interfered in the economy and politics of Central and South America a very long time. Anti-leftist campaigns have resulted in military coups in Colombia and other nations.

The ACNUR man suggests that FARC would have never formed had the United States refrained from expanding its anticommunism agen- da to Colombia and supporting the overthrow of the elected leftist presi- dent in the 1960s.

The ACNUR man, now at full steam, speaks fluidly and energetically. He expands his discussion to South American economy and commerce. He says the IMF and the World Bank, working closely with the United States, create excess debt in South America as a means of control.

"Many nations are poor and need help," says the ACNUR man. The IMF and the World Bank use loan agreements to gain access to the vast amounts of raw materials and resourc- es in South America.

The ACNUR man implicates American companies like Texaco in economic manipulation and envi- ronmental atrocities. He says that America and its companies use and abuse South America’s environment, resources, people and government to meet its own agendas.

Though he is still wary of the United States and its policies, his closing statements indicate hope for South America.

"Education is improving and eco- nomic growth is stable," he says.

Like others in his academic circles, the ACNUR man is nationalistic. He supports Ecuador and is optimistic for her future.