Ecuador’s Humanitarian Emergency: The Spillover of Colombia’s Conflict

Ecuador's Humanitarian EmergencyThe term “refugee crisis” usually conjures images of Africa, the Balkans and other war-torn regions. It may come as a surprise, then, that one of the world’s most severe refugee crises is taking place in the same time zone as Washington, D.C.

Over the past nine years, an estimated 300,000 Colombian refugees have crossed their country’s border with Ecuador. They have fled persecution, threats, disappearances, murders, deliberate displacement, and recruitment by the parties to Colombia’s long, drug-funded war between government forces, leftist guerrillas, and paramilitary militias, all of which violate human rights with great frequency.

These refugees do not live in camps, but subsist among the Ecuadorian population. 250,000 are “invisible,” with no rights to international protection, education, health, or employment. While Ecuador has the most liberal asylum policy of its South Ameri- can neighbors, it cannot come close to doing what is needed to provide protection and basic services for the large number of Colombians arriving in Ecuador every day.

Ecuador’s northern border is home to over 85 percent of all Colombian refugees, asylum seekers and popu- lation in need of protection. The region includes five provinces, Esmeraldas, Carchi, Imbabura, Sucum- bíos and Orellana, and spans 400 miles. Despite the abundance of natural resources in the region, includ- ing oil, economic development has not taken place. As a result, the landscape consists mainly of dense secondary rainforest scattered with small towns and farming communities. The population on the border region is impoverished and lacks access to basic in- frastructure like sewage, electricity and potable water.

In November 2008, staff from the Center for Inter- national Policy accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) on a four-day visit to Ecuador’s northeastern borderlands. Despite President Rafael Correa’s development and security plan for the bor- der region, known as Plan Ecuador, which is currently in its initial phase, we found that the resources and infrastructure are not in place to address problems that require immediate attention. We found the hu- manitarian crisis to be more severe than anticipated, and the need for action – from the U.S. government as well as international humanitarian organizations – more urgent than is generally recognized.