By Rita Crowley-Ornelas and Adina Appelbaum
In early 2012, when the Ecuadorian government’s Refugee Directorate (RD) implemented mobile offices at towns along the border in order to facilitate the document renewal process for refugees in rural areas, it became apparent that there is an entire population of unrecognized refugees in San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas who are being deprived of access to the refugee status determination (RSD) process solely because they entered the country through this port.
San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas: A Primary Entry Point for Refugees Fleeing the Conflict in Colombia
San Lorenzo, Ecuador is a town bordering Colombia that is directly accessible by boat from Nariño — currently one of the most conflict-ridden, unstable territories in Colombia. Thousands of refugees regularly flee Nariño on small, rickety boats via Tumaco, arriving directly in San Lorenzo with the hope of escaping the violence. They are young, strong men, the sons of farm workers, escaping forced recruitment by armed groups. They are also women who, prior to the arrival of armed groups, worked on family owned farms, until they were forced to flee to Ecuador after their husbands were killed in order to obtain control of their farms. These women are now alone in caring for their children and without any source of income. They are also all Afro-Colombian and illiterate, with little to no formal education. Upon arriving in San Lorenzo, they are still scared for their lives because while the danger is lesser after having crossed the border, there is still a paramilitary presence in San Lorenzo and the fear that persecutors have followed is tangible among communities of those who have recently escaped Colombia. In addition to their inherent vulnerabilities, this newly arrived refugee population in San Lorenzo has no access to documentation, making it invisible.
No Access to the Refugee Status Determination System
In order to solicit refugee status, refugees in San Lorenzo must travel to the closest government office that processes refugee visas, Esmeraldas, which is a four-hour bus ride away. In taking the trip they run the risk of being stopped, detained and deported. In addition to logistical challenges, one of the most prohibitive obstacles to gaining access to the RSD process for asylum seekers in San Lorenzo is illiteracy. People who are illiterate are distressed by the idea of traveling to a city that they do not know, where they have no contacts, and where they are unable to navigate independently because they cannot read street signs or even the notice of the interview date that they were issued by the government. Illiteracy also makes them particularly difficult to get in contact with because if they have cell phones, they often do not know their own phone numbers. But even if refugees in San Lorenzo are literate and brave enough to travel to Esmeraldas to seek refugee status, they are often prohibited from doing so by a lack of resources. People do not have the funds necessary to travel to Esmeraldas to apply for their visa, a process that they have an irrefutable and undeniable right to – regardless of their economic status. For asylum seekers arriving in San Lorenzo, these obstacles reduce their internationally recognized right to a refugee visa to a mere pipe dream, attainable only by those who are lucky. Continue reading