Legal Aid at the Ecuadorian-Colombian Border: VLA Rita Crowley-Ornelas’ Work in San Lorenzo and Esmeraldas

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.

By Nitsan Tal

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


Updates From the Field — Refugee Livelihoods in Ecuador

By Anna Chen

Anna Chen spent a year working for Asylum Access in Quito, Ecuador. In March 2012, she traveled with volunteer photographer Nitsan Tal to document the inspiring lives of our refugee clients. 

See the latest blog from Anna, published in the Asylum Access Right to Work Blog.

For more information about refugees’ experience with the right to work in Ecuador, refer to Asylum Access’s 2011 report, “To Have Work is To Have Life”.

Photo by Nitsan Tal



The postings on this site express the personal opinions of VLAs and guest bloggers.  They do not necessarily represent Asylum Access’ positions, strategies, or opinions.

To learn more about the work of Asylum Access, visit the Asylum Access webpage.

Permits Protect Refugees from Refoulement and Allow them to Access their Right to Work

By Mwajabu Khalid and Ben Lewis

Nathan Sibakwe* was not born a refugee.  Raised in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nathan led a peaceful childhood and grew up to become a successful businessman—an oil trader with shipping routes throughout East Africa.  He employed over 50 men as truck drivers and boat operators.  His hard work and entrepreneurship were able to provide a good life for his wife, children and community.

However, all this changed when ethnic and political conflict of the First Congo Civil War erupted.  Nathan was away from his family on business and could not get back home due to the fighting.  He sent word to his wife and family to flee immediately to Kigoma, Tanzania where he would be waiting for them.  Three months later they had still not arrived.  He was told by friends from the region that they had been caught in the fighting and were dead.

With an uncommon resilience common to refugee survivors of conflict, Nathan was intent on continuing his life.  His business had been destroyed, but he still had money to invest and the same entrepreneurial spirit he had honed in the DRC.

– Peasant Permits are helping refugees to become self-reliant and to once again pursue their lives in dignity and autonomy.

But arriving in Tanzania, Nathan found his life confronted with a different adversity.  Under the Refugees Act of 1998, refugees and asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work.  Instead, they are forced to reside in “refugee designated areas”—refugee camps—and to become dependent upon humanitarian aid that is often insufficient to meet basic needs.  Understanding this, Nathan—like thousands of others—decided to leave the refugee camp to seek a life of dignity and self-sufficiency elsewhere.

Nathan arrived to Dar es Salaam in 2001 where he remarried, had two children, and started a small butcher shop that quickly grew into a successful business.  Once again, Nathan was earning enough money to provide a good life for his wife, children and community.  After two years of hard work, he was one of the most successful businessmen in his neighborhood.  However, Nathan was under constant fear of arrest and exploitation.  He was frequently forced to pay increasing rents to his landlord and to bribe those who knew of his refugee status in order to avoid being arrested and refouled.  Despite his refugee status and successful business, Nathan still had no legal permission to live outside of a refugee camp or to provide for himself and his family.

Until recently.

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Refugee Perspectives on Trauma and Access to Mental Health Care

By Ben Lewis

Worldwide, refugees and asylum seekers face much higher incidences of mental health disorders than their host country counterparts.  Learn how urban refugees are forming strong social-networks as a low-cost, effective coping mechanism to combat psycho-social trauma.

Susan Ibonga* first arrived in Tanzania in 1997 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Caught up in the ethnic and political conflict of the South Kivu region during the first Congo Civil War, she and four of her children narrowly escaped the death that has now taken the lives of over 2.5 million Congolese.  Susan’s husband was not as lucky.  Tragically, he and Susan’s eldest daughter were killed when rebel soldiers attempted to rape her daughter.  Susan herself was wounded in the flight, but her largest scars are not physical—rather they are the emotional and psychological trauma that has accompanied her pain and loss.

Over 500 participants attended the 5th Annual PCAF Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference from July 16-18 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

From July 16-18, Susan shared her experiences with over 500 participants from around the world at the 5th Annual Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference organized by the Peter C. Alderman Foundation (PCAF) and held in Dar es Salaam.  In a moving presentation entitled “Refugee Perspectives on Trauma and Access to Mental Health Care,” Susan thanked the the doctors, psychologists, psycho-social counselors, and medical student participants for allowing her to tell her story.  She stated that the opportunity to share her pain somehow gave her hope and “allowed [her] to feel human again.”

But as a number of psychotrauma experts later explained, the fact that Susan’s traumatic experience of 15 years ago is still felt by her in such vivid detail, is a painful reminder that refugees and asylum seekers frequently fail to be able to access basic physical and mental health care services in their countries of asylum.

Asylum Access staff, VLAs and clients pose outside of the PCAF Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference held in Dar es Salaam.

As research published in The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP) confirms, worldwide, refugees and asylum seekers face much higher incidences of mental health disorders than their host country counterparts.  For example, 71.9% of refugees surveyed in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in 2004 reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.  A 2004 study of urban refugees living in Kampala, Uganda indicated that as many as one out of every five refugees is suffering from serious mental health problems. Continue reading

It Takes Courage to be a Refugee

By Nondo Nobel Bwami

Asylum Access Tanzania Refugee Fellow, Nondo Nobel Bwami, delivered the following speech on June 30, 2012 to commemorate World Refugee Day.

Asylum Access Refugee Fellow, Nondo Nobel Bwami

I am a refugee among others and I am proud of this status.  Although a refugee is considered less of a person by many people simply because of his refugee status; despite the fact that a refugee is misunderstood almost everywhere and in every corner of the world; despite the fact that a refugee is seen as someone who is out of his mind and very often confused; I am still proud to be a refugee.  Despite the fact that a refugee may be deprived of his homeland, shelter and access to many other things necessary to live as a human being, still there is meaning in saying “it takes courage to be a refugee.”

There is courage in being a refugee as far as hope and perseverance are concerned.

There is no shame in being a refugee.  One finds himself walking suddenly in refugee status due to extraordinary circumstances out of his control. Circumstances like these are, unfortunately, always happening in life.  But after awhile they disappear and a person is free to rebuild self-sufficiency and lost hope.  Being a refugee is not a burden.  It is a challenge to rise up, to rebuild my life and contribute to the betterment of society.

A refugee is a normal person and, like anyone else, he is capable of extraordinary things provided that he is only given a chance.  As UNHCR explains:

“Refugees are ordinary people, too, except that through no fault of their own, they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.  As such, they are often required to dig deep into their own inner sources of strength… It takes courage to be a refugee.  Courage not to give up hope and to make the most of the hand that has been dealt.  Courage to start a new life against daunting odds, eventually to become contributing and enriching members of society once more.”

It is of utmost importance to understand this unique courage as explained by UNHCR.

My own courage is a result of many things—my long travel toward attaining refugee status, my refugee life experience, and the many great lessons drawn from my life as a refugee.  These things have strengthened me and helped me to develop the skills and abilities that I have today; things such as working hard, working well under pressure, learning quickly, adapting to new environments, and understanding different cultures so that I may not lose out on any available opportunity in life.

Yes, it really takes courage to be a refugee.

Clues to the source of this courage are found in the long journey I made together with my family toward Tanzania when leaving our DRC as the country was falling into an atrocious civil war.  To this day, no one knows when this war will end.  It takes courage to be a refugee; to accept this status.

Think of the thousands of people in the world who took up and are still taking up their things.  They are walking on roads, in forests, risking their lives crossing deep lakes, rivers, seas and oceans in order to flee the sad events occurring in their own countries for the sake of rescuing their loved ones from being persecuted.  Think of the thousands of people in the world who died and are still dying of hunger, slaughter, and illness.  Think of the others who suffer disabilities, either physical or mental, due to wars that are happening in their countries.  Think of the thousands of refugees in the world who are scattered and separated from their families without hope to find or meet them again.

Yes, it takes courage to be a refugee: courage to endure such circumstances; courage to endure the homesickness; courage to tolerate persecution and torture; courage to achieve one’s plans; courage to learn new cultures and new languages; courage to adapt to turbulent environments.

It really takes courage to be a refugee: courage to stay in refugee camps, courage to study in the camps under trees and tents; courage to be considered an unlawful urban refugee; courage to be born and to grow up in a foreign country.

It takes courage to be a refugee: courage to know there are only three possible lasting solutions to your situation (repatriation, local integration, or resettlement), all of which are very difficult to realize.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has said:

“While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

These kinds of statements are indeed encouraging.  They make us feel proud of our “uncommon courage.”  And they give us encouragement to continue having the courage to rebuild our lives full of hope.


The postings on this site express the personal opinions of VLAs and guest bloggers.  They do not necessarily represent Asylum Access’ positions, strategies, or opinions.

To learn more about the work of Asylum Access, visit the Asylum Access webpage.

World Refugee Day 2012: Perspectives from Tanzania

By Ben Lewis

World Refugee Day is a moment to remember all those affected [by displacement], and a time to intensify our support.  – UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon

Established in 2001 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, World Refugee Day seeks to honor the courage, determination and hope of the millions of men, women, children who have been forced into exile.  But as UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, reminds us, World Refugee Day is not simply a day to recognize refugees and all those affected by displacement—it is also an opportunity to intensify our support for refugees and their human rights.

Participants in UNHCR’s “One Person Forced to Flee is Too Many” World Refugee Day Celebration release white balloons in Dar es Salaam to honor refugees.

Under the banner of “One Person Forced to Flee is Too ManyUNHCR Tanzania, local government officials and refugee supporters—including AATZ staff Janemary Ruhundwa and Mwajabu Khalid—remembered refugees on June 20, 2012 in Dar es Salaam with a day of speeches and pledges of support.

The slogan “One Person Forced to Flee is Too Many” is appropriate given the current refugee situation in Tanzania where the mass influxes of the 1970s – 1990s have been replaced more recently with individual or small group refugee movements.  Often, these asylum seekers are seeking refuge from protracted insecurity or individual cases of persecution.  This shifting refugee paradigm is reflected in a number of recent reports of new refugee arrivals from the Horn of Africa transiting through Tanzania, continued displacement from eastern Congo, and growing numbers of urban and self-settled refugees flocking to Tanzania’s cities as the government takes steps to close the Mtabila refugee camp.

As the refugee reality in Tanzania shifts from mass influxes to individual refugee status determination, the Government of Tanzania will need to take steps to update its refugee law and policy.  For example, UNHCR’s “One Person Forced to Flee is Too Many” World Refugee Day celebration in Dar es Salaam was unable to include the estimated “thousands” of urban refugees and asylum seekers that have found their way to Dar es Salaam over the last three decades.  This was primarily due to Tanzania’s continued reliance on a refugee encampment policy that was created to respond to mass refugee influxes.  While the Government of Tanzania continues to graciously host a refugee population of over 100,000 in its northwestern provinces, both the Refugees Act of 1998 and the National Refugee Policy of 2003 are due for revision in order to remain relevant to current refugee realities.

Many of Tanzania’s urban and self-settled refugees have never lived in a refugee camp.  They seek refuge and refugee status within urban areas due to a variety of factors including better opportunities for livelihood development and self-sufficiency, unique protection needs, or a simple desire to exercise their freedom of movement.  They are not alone.  As UNHCR pointed out in 2009, the world is undergoing a process of rapid urbanization in which a majority of the world’s nearly 50 million refugees are self-settled in urban areas as opposed to encamped in traditional refugee settlements.  A vast majority of these self-settled refugees depend neither on UNHCR nor host governments for material support.  Instead, they are highly entrepreneurial, often obtaining livelihoods despite legal and xenophobic host-country opposition.   Continue reading

Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador: Reflections from World Refugee Day

By Adina Appelbaum

Political and cultural realities in Ecuador have caused over 110,000 refugees and asylum seekers to face onerous policy and legal requirements, widespread discrimination, and severe violations of basic human rights. Blogging from Quito in light of World Refugee Day, GPPReview Online’s Adina Appelbaum takes a closer look at the schism between policy and practice in Ecuador’s protection of refugee rights.

See the latest article from Asylum Access VLA Adina Appelbaum, published in the Georgetown Public Policy Review.


The postings on this site express the personal opinions of VLAs and guest bloggers.  They do not necessarily represent Asylum Access’ positions, strategies, or opinions.

To learn more about the work of Asylum Access, visit the Asylum Access webpage.

World Refugee Day 2012: Perspectives from Ecuador

By Adina Appelbaum

Asylum Access VLAs celebrate World Refugee Day 2012 by working to ensure that Ecuador remains an international leader in refugee protection.

June 20th marks Día Mundial del Refugiado – World Refugee Day – a day in which we commemorate the millions of courageous refugees who have fled their countries due to wars or internal conflict, leaving behind their homes, families, work and friends in hopes of a life free from persecution.  We gain inspiration from their resilience and we reflect on how no one chooses to be a refugee.

Asylum Access Ecuador VLAs celebrate el Día Mundial del Refugiado – World Refugee Day 2012 – with a bike ride and food and art fair in Quito.

In celebration, on Sunday June 17th the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR/ACNUR); several Ecuadorian government ministries including El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio e Integración, la Defensoría del Pueblo, el Municipio del Distrito Metropolitano de Quito, el Ministerio de Justicia, and Derechos Humanos y Cultos; and various refugee rights organizations hosted Ciclopaseo Échale Pedal, a bike ride and food and art fair in Quito, Ecuador.  This event as well as UNHCR’s recently launched “Gracias, Ecuador” campaign have aimed to promote solidarity, inclusion, and non-discrimination in Ecuador, so that refugees may be better integrated into Ecuadorian society.  Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE) participated in the World Refugee Day event with a group of volunteers riding in the bicycle parade as well as a tent where we distributed information about our work.[i]

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AATZ Helps Connect Families Using Mobile Technology

By Ben Lewis

Mobile technology is on the rise globally and has the potential to drastically change the ways that refugees and their legal advocates connect over legal services provision.  Nowhere is this truer than in East Africa, where Asylum Access VLAs are using mobile technology to reunite missing loved ones. 

Five years ago when Bloomberg’s Businessweek proclaimed that cell phones were “sparking economic hope and growth” in emerging nations such as Kenya and Tanzania, they reported some 3 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide with projections of as many as 5 billion users by 2015.  Today, according to Jeffrey Sachs, that figure has climbed to more than 6 billion, with over 250 million mobile subscribers in Africa alone, dwarfing earlier estimates.

Asylum Access VLA Ben Lewis discusses RU mobile outreach with a Refugee Consortium of Kenya protection monitor in Nairobi.

East Africa is on the forefront of this mobile revolution, with over 75 million mobile phone users, and Asylum Access Tanzania (AATZ) VLAs are using mobile technology to help refugees and asylum seekers connect with missing family members and loved ones.  In 2011, AATZ began an initial partnership with Refugees United (RU), a Danish NGO providing a mobile tool for family tracing that helps refugees, IDPs and stateless people search for and reconnect with missing family or friends in a fully secure, anonymous platform. Continue reading

Trainings Help Refugees Understand the Rights—and Realities—of Refugee Status

By Ben Lewis

Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, Asylum Access VLAs are helping educate refugees and asylum seekers on refugee rights through regular community legal empowerment initiatives.  Central to the mission and vision of Asylum Access, VLAs are empowering refugees to realize their rights by first helping them to understand their legal rights and obligations under existing domestic and international frameworks.

Asylum Access VLA Mwajabu Khalid speaks with refugees and asylum seekers during a Know Your Rights Training held in Dar es Salaam.

Entitled Know Your Rights Trainings, VLAs in Ecuador, Tanzania and Thailand regularly conduct rights-based trainings among newly-arrived refugees as well as refresher courses for ongoing clients.  Legal staff explain the basic distinctions between international and domestic law, review seminal laws such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and domestic implementing legislation, and, importantly, engage in an honest discussion with refugee and asylum seeking clients about the application of these laws to their everyday lives.

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