Colombian Refugees Forge New Life in Ecuador Despite Challenges

Colombian Refugees Forge New Life in Ecuador Despite Challenges
A young Colombian refugee gets a taste of home from his aunt’s cooking.

A young Colombian refugee gets a taste of home from his aunt’s cooking. | Photo: Reuters

For a Colombian refugee in Ecuador, one of the biggest challenges of building a new life after being uprooting from his home amid a decades-long civil war has been overcoming the stigma faced by asylum-seekers when they arrive in a new country, in everything from education to employment.

“It’s not easy to land somewhere where you don’t know anyone or anything about the culture. You don’t know how you’ll be treated, you don’t have any money,” a Colombian refugee, who prefered to remain anonymous, told teleSUR from his mechanic’s workshop in Ibarra, located over 40 miles northeast of the capital of Quito. “One starts from scratch. Basically, you only have clothes.”

“The most difficult aspect of the life of a refugee, in my opinion, is that constant discrimination does not leave us many opportunities to find employment, but also for housing, just for being Colombian,” he said.

“It was very tough in the beginning, we knocked on many doors, but unfortunately without obtaining one single job opportunity,” the Colombian refugee explained. “Then we started to rent washing machines.”

He added that his children have faced discrimination at school, saying, “The youngest is always being mocked for the way he talks or the way he combs his hair, for his clothes.”

Ecuador hosts the largest refugee population in Latin America, and 95 percent of Ecuador’s refugees are Colombians. A large proportion of them have settled in Ibarra, a city just south of the Colombian border.

According to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, Colombia is home to the largest internally displaced population in the world, with over 7 million people uprooted. Some of the millions of victims of the more than half century-long internal armed conflict between revolutionary guerrilla group, government forces and right-wing paramilitaries have settled in neighboring countries, like Ecuador.

According to experts, public institutions in Ecuador — which has an immigration policy that declares “no one is illegal” — have made efforts to meet the international standards of protection of refugees.

“Ecuador has implemented one of the most extensive legislative framework to protect refugees, that’s the reason why it is also the country that receives the highest number of asylum requests on the continent,” Jose de la Fuente, head of the UNHCR Andean office in Ibarra, told teleSUR.

Asylum-seekers usually face persecution in their home countries, and they have the opportunity to live a better life in Ecuador, he added.

Fuente also explained that solidarity among refugees helps them build networks of support to be able to get by and even thrive in their new homes. “For instance, they buy the food a refugee sells in the street because they know what it means to arrive here without anything, without being able to pay for rent,” he said.

Ecuador’s province of Imbabura has the highest population of refugees in the country due to its close proximity to the border with Colombia, where the largest proportion of refugees come from to resettle in Ecuador.

Despite the signing last year of Colombia’s historic peace agreement ending the 52-year-old civil war, Ecuador is still receiving a large number of asylum-seekers from Colombia. Over two-thirds of those affected by the conflict are Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians.

According to Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, Ecuador hosts about 60,000 refugees and tens of thousands more asylum seekers.

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