SAN LORENZO, Ecuador (AlertNet) - When Angela Quinoes’ nine-year-old daughter was raped by a local gang member a year ago, she decided her family had no option but to leave their home in the southwest Colombian port city of Tumaco.
Quinoes, her husband and their three young daughters packed several suitcases and made the four-hour journey by bus and small boat along the tributaries of the Pacific Ocean to the port town of San Lorenzo in neighbouring Ecuador.
“I felt impotent. I worried for the future and safety of my daughters. We were surrounded by gangs, looking to recruit boys and girls. If you denounce a crime, the gangs threatened you with death. I had to protect my children,” said Quinoes, sitting in the shack she rents.
San Lorenzo’s warrens of precarious wooden shacks on stilts are home to thousands of Colombians who have fled violence over the years.
According to the Ecuadorian government, each month 1,200 to 1,500 Colombians cross the invisible border along mountain paths and rivers to seek refuge in gritty towns like San Lorenzo and rural communities across Ecuador’s northern provinces.
Colombia’s porous, 586 km-long border with Ecuador stretches from the Pacific coast through the Andean highlands and Amazon jungle.
Since the early 2000s, Ecuador has officially recognised more than 56,000 Colombians as refugees, making it home to the highest number of refugees in Latin America.
Yet as the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) meet in Havana this week for peace talks aimed at ending nearly 50 years of war, the daily flow of dozens of Colombians seeking refuge in Ecuador shows little sign of abating.
“With the current peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, many people may think that perhaps there is no more conflict in Colombia,” said Oscar Sanchez, who heads the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) office in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province, where San Lorenzo is located.
“But the reality is that we continue to see large numbers fleeing the volatile areas along the Pacific coast of Colombia,” he said.
Some families flee their homes to escape fighting between government troops and rebels. Others leave to avoid their children being forcibly recruited into rebel ranks.
Since early 2000, the Colombian army has stepped up its U.S.-backed military offensive in the south, aimed at dislodging leftist rebels from their jungle strongholds. This has pushed the guerrillas further towards the border with Ecuador.
As a result, civilians, particularly from Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups and poor farming communities, have become increasingly caught up in the fighting and driven from their homes.
In a sign welcomed by war-weary Colombians and politicians alike, the guerrilla group called a two-month unilateral ceasefire this week, the first truce in more than a decade.
TERRORISED BY GANGS
Colombian refugees living in Ecuador’s northern border regions also face drug-fuelled violence.
In the dead of night, notorious Colombian criminal gangs, such as the “Rastrojos” and “Black Eagles”, use the mangroves and sea outlets surrounding San Lorenzo to smuggle cocaine, arms and contraband petrol.
“Over the past few years we have seen an increased presence of irregular armed groups along the border where they operate and foster systemic human rights violations,” Sanchez said.
“Having escaped to the province of Esmeraldas from persecution, refugees are met with further insecurity, something they hoped to have left behind. At times, the very actors who forced their displacement are now present in the border area,” he added.
In some cases, Colombian refugees are uprooted yet again.
Quinoes, like thousands of others, is hoping the Ecuadorian authorities will soon grant her refugee status. That would make it easier for her to find work, open a local bank account, and access education and health services.
Despite having a university degree, Quinoes has not found a permanent job in San Lorenzo like she had back home. She sells fruit in the street, while her husband works at a nearby palm oil plantation earning $13 for a 12-hour shift.
But even with the constant struggle to put food on the table, Quinoes prefers living in Ecuador. “We have nothing here, but I have my freedom and I feel safer here,” she said.
REFUGEE STATUS DENIED
Her fate will be decided later this month at an interview with foreign ministry officials, who will determine whether she has the right to stay in the country as a refugee.
But most Colombians are denied that status, with 90 out of every 100 applications turned down by the Ecuadorian authorities.
A new presidential decree in May that tightened Ecuador’s refugee laws make it likely that many more Colombians will be denied refugee status and tens of thousands will continue to live illegally in the country, the UNHCR says.
“Decree 1182 represents a setback for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees in Ecuador,” Sanchez said. “Asylum seekers now have only 15 days to apply for refugee status from the moment they arrive and three to five days to appeal a negative decision.”
Thousands more Colombians never apply for refugee status in the first place or are left in limbo out of fear of being deported, lack of information on how to apply for refugee status and transport costs to government centres that process refugee claims, according to the UNHCR.
About 300 km from San Lorenzo, in Carchi province, the chilly Andean highland town of San Gabriel is another focal point for Colombians crossing into Ecuador. This province alone is home to 5,000 officially recognised refugees, many scraping a living as temporary labourers on dairy and vegetable farms.
Martha Mimalchi arrived alone in San Gabriel 15 years ago at the age of 17 to escape the terror inflicted by FARC rebels in her home town of Cumbal in Colombia’s southern border province of Narino.
For more than six years before that, a local rebel commander had made regular visits to Cumbal to rape her. It is an ordeal that still haunts her.
“They (the FARC) are very cruel, bad people,” said the soft-spoken 32-year old. “I can’t forget about it. I can’t say I lived a life in Colombia. It was more like a nightmare.”
On a good day, Mimalchi earns $10 a day selling mangoes in the street.
“I’ve no intention of going back to Colombia,” she said, adding it took her over three years to get refugee status in Ecuador. “My son and I are better off here.”
Some Colombian refugees in Ecuador say they have been discriminated against by local officials and denied jobs because they are refugees.
“People here often say Colombians are thieves. If only they knew why we’re really here and the suffering we’ve gone through,” Mimalchi said.
The Ecuadorian government has used Colombians as a scapegoat for crime and other security problems, according to a 2011 report from Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group.
But local authorities in San Lorenzo say they are doing their best to care for Colombian refugees, including providing them with housing.
“We’ve never discriminated against Colombians. We share the same culture. They’re our brothers,” Lucrecia Burbano, San Lorenzo’s deputy mayor, told AlertNet.