In April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed over 650 people across the provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabí in northwestern Ecuador. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes the nation had ever experienced. Rubbing salt into the wound, two strong aftershocks in May injured 90 people and devastated the two provinces.
The United Nations Refugee Agency has called on donors to immediately provide $73 million of support in order to respond to the needs of 350,000 people affected by the earthquake. Only 15 percent of that amount, however, has been received. Here are 10 facts about Ecuadorian refugees:
1. According to official records, around 73,000 people have been uprooted and are either residing in organized camps and shelters or with host families. Over 30,000 are currently staying in collective centers, where violence and abuse against women, boys and girls are rampant. Moreover, close to 15,000 people have lost their identity papers, making it difficult for them to access basic social programs and services.
2. The earthquake also destroyed 10,00 buildings and close to 560 schools. Thousands of people are staying in makeshift shelters, and 120,000 children are in immediate need of temporary educational centers. So far, the Ministry of Education has opened up temporary learning centers for 20,000 children and circulated 750 “school in a box” supplies to nearly 60,000 children.
3. The number of Zika Virus cases increased twelvefold in three months after the earthquake, from 92 to 1,106 nationwide. The most affected demographic is women between the ages of 15 and 49. This age range accounts for 509 cases in the Manabí Province alone.
4. In 2015, the United Nations Refugee Agency, alongside its partner organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and state and private institutions, launched an inventive poverty reduction program called the Graduation Model, which aims to lift 7,500 people out of poverty in 2016 via financial education and vocational training.
5. Ecuador hosts the highest number of refugees in all of Latin America. It is home to around 200,000 Colombian migrants, far more than any other Latin American country. Almost all of the Ecuadorian refugees fled to Ecudaor from the Colombian civil war. Although Ecuador gets some support from the United Nations and Colombia, it bears most of the social and financial burden for the refugees itself, costing the government around $60 million per year.
6. Approximately 17,000 refugees, mostly from Colombia, were residing in the areas most affected by the earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks. The crisis has made assimilation more difficult for them.
7. Since 2010, the asylums and protection spaces for Colombian refugees in Ecuador have been rapidly deteriorating. Ecuador signed both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, but the country revised its Refugee Act in the early 2010s to alter the original definition of “refugee.” This has restricted domestic asylum procdures for Colombian refugees, and many have been forced to live in remote jungles by the Colombian border, making them susceptible to armed conflict between FARC rebels trying to cross into Ecuador.
8. Limited livelihood opportunities, lack of access to health services, discrimination and police harassment are common in some areas. This has made secondary displacement of Colombian refugees within Ecuador common.
9. Plan Colombia, a U.S.-sponsored initiative working to wipe out cocaine crops in Colombia, ends up destroying adjacent farmlands. This creates a large number of economic migrants who are forced to relocate to Ecuador, where they live in constant threat of belligerents that follow them from Colombia. To be resettled, Colombian refugees must create a new testimony, just to make themselves fit the “refugee” definition.
10. A survey conducted by the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health in 2014 reported that 92.2 percent (404 out of 438) of Colombian refugees in Ecuador did not intend to return to Colombia. Out of these, around 9 percent were considering migrating to another area of Ecuador. Some 12 percent intended to migrate to a third country, mostly to the United States. Moreover, virtually no one had a precise short-term plan.
The April 2016 earthquake hit northwestern Ecuador, where most of the country’s Colombian refugees reside, the hardest. These refugees had originally fled from civil war in Colombia and had already lost their homes once. In Ecuador, they had managed to rebuild their lives. Dealing with the massive refugee influx from Colombia, as well as internally displaced people in Ecuador, remains a daunting task for the Ecuadorian government and the refugee agencies working on the ground.
– Swapnil Mishra