SAN LORENZO, Ecuador (AlertNet) - Every month 1,200 to 1,500 Colombians cross the invisible border along mountain paths and rivers to escape violence and seek refuge in Ecuador’s northern provinces.
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.
As the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) meet in Havana for peace talks aimed at ending nearly 50 years of war, the daily flow of dozens of Colombians fleeing to Ecuador shows little sign of abating.
The port town of San Lorenzo in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province is a focal point for Colombians crossing into neighbouring Ecuador. Many come from the southwest Colombian city of Tumaco, which is a four-hour journey by bus and boat along the tributaries of the Pacific Ocean.
Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province alone is home to 6,075 officially recognised Colombian refugees. Colombia’s porous, 586 km-long border with Ecuador stretches from the Pacific coast through the Andean highlands and Amazon jungle.
San Lorenzo’s warrens of precarious wooden shacks on stilts are home to thousands of Colombians who have fled violence over the years. Some leave their homes to escape fighting between government troops and FARC rebels. Others want to prevent their children being forcibly recruited into rebel ranks and to escape gang violence.
Colombian refugees living in San Lorenzo and across Ecuador’s northern border regions also face drug-fuelled violence. Notorious Colombian criminal gangs use the mangroves and sea outlets surrounding San Lorenzo to smuggle cocaine, arms and contraband petrol.
San Lorenzo is surrounded by gold mines - some illegal - and palm oil plantations, which provide the main source of work for local Ecuadorians and Colombian refugees alike.
Colombian Daissy Sierra and her two children arrived in San Lorenzo last year, after she was driven from her home in Tumaco by drug-related gang violence. “I felt traumatised in Tumaco. You could hear gun shots at night. You close the doors at night and don’t come out,” she said.
In Tumaco, Sierra was doing a course in computer studies, but she has no job in San Lorenzo. “I don’t want to go back. It’s too unsafe. My life is better here but I hope one day to continue my studies,” she said. Sierra is in the process of applying for refugee status.
Daissy Sierra’s youngest child (pictured) and his sister go to a local school in San Lorenzo. His mother says he misses his grandparents who still live in Tumaco.
In San Lorenzo, some Colombian refugees have set up illegal settlements on the edge of mangroves. Families living here can be kicked off this land at any time.
Colombian refugee families in Ecuador have an average of four children. Roughly 40 percent of them live on less than $100 a month, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Dianis Espana, 26, fled her home in Tumaco five years ago because of threats from an armed group. She sold her television and DVD player to pay for the journey to San Lorenzo, which cost $10 dollars per person. One of her four children was born in Ecuador.
Espana does not have a job. Her husband is a fisherman but what he earns does not cover their rent and food every month. They spent three months building their wooden shack from scratch, one plank at a time. Plastic sheeting serves as a door. “We feel safer in Ecuador,” Espana said.
Seven years ago, Armando Guaitarilla left his home in Colombia’s southern border province of Narino to escape fighting between the Colombian army and FARC rebels. He used to own a house, a car and a motorbike repair shop. FARC rebels would demand he fix their vehicles and change their tyres “at all hours” against his will.
Guaitarilla came to Ecuador’s Carchi province in the Andean highlands, home to some 5,000 officially recognised refugees, many from indigenous groups. He has not been able to find a stable job in Ecuador, but he sometimes gets temporary work on farms and construction sites.
Armando has five children, who all go to rural schools in Ecuador. He says he’s been “well-received” in Ecuador. “I’m not sure whether peace will happen or not in Colombia,” he said. “But in any case, we’re not going back.