Colombian Refugees in Ecuador

"Many who flee do not register with the UNHCR and often cross back to their homeland when they feel it is again safe to do so," – Ms Pagonis

Origins of the Refugee Situation

  • The Colombian armed conflict, a low-intensity, asymmetric armed conflict beginning in the 1960s is the main source for many Colombians leaving their home and going into Ecuador(Leech).
  • The paramilitaries allied with the Colombian Armed Forces fight the guerrillas along with anyone suspected of being a guerrilla sympathizer(union members, peasant organizers, human rights                workers and religious activists).
  •  Some paramilitary leaders also see guerrilla sympathizers to include drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, petty criminals and the homeless in their efforts to “cleanse” Colombian society
  • Initially, the liberal and conservative parties of Colombia were pitted against each other but after the overthrow of Rojas Pinilla in 1957, both liberal and conservative parties decided to come together under the National Front alliance and alternate with power.
  • Wars against peasants and guerrillas have been fought many times over.
  •  Because of the armed conflict, many Colombian refugees have been fleeing to Ecuador as of late.

The numbers
  •         Almost three quarters of the 80,000 Colombians live in northern Ecuador(UN News Centre, February 22, 2008).
  • Preliminary results from the survey by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate at least 59,000 Colombians living in Ecuador’s five northern provinces need protection(UN News Centre, February 22, 2008).
  •  There are about 250,000 refugees living in Ecuador, most of them Colombians who have fled an internal armed conflict(International Herald Tribune).
  •  Fewer than 11,000 displaced Colombians have been recognised as refugees in Ecuadorian territory(BBB World News, November 15).
  •  Since 2000, an estimated 40,000 Colombians have sought asylum(The Catholic Relief Services).


The Difficulties Colombian Refugees Face

  • To begin with, Ecuador has the most progressive refugee legislation of any country in Latin America(Refugees International).
  •  Despite this, most Colombians choose not to seek asylum because they are either afraid of the armed forces near Ecuador’s borders or because they do not understand the process of seeking asylum(Refugees International).
  •  Finding a job or starting a business is difficult for many refugees(UN News Centre, January 17, 2008).
  •  Only about 30% of those who apply for refugee status have been officially recognised as refugees, allowing them to live and work openly in Ecuador or apply for resettlement in a third country(Schweimler).
  •  People who are refused recognition or those who simply do not apply remain in Ecuador, doing whatever they can to live(Schweimler).
  •  Lack of adequate protection puts displaced Colombian women and children at risk of human rights abuses such as human trafficking(ReliefWeb).
  •  Ecuador historically has been relatively welcoming to Colombian refugees(ReliefWeb).
  •   Lately, growing intolerance for Colombian migration has resulted in the border between Ecuador and Colombia becoming increasingly difficult for refugees to cross(ReliefWeb).
  • Ecuador has imposed new documentation requirements on Colombians who wish to enter the country at recognized crossing points(ReliefWeb).
  •  Many Colombians face discrimination and women face twice as much discrimination based not only on both gender and nationality(ReliefWeb).
  •  Because of discrimination and high school fees, many Colombian children do not attend school and end up working to help support their families(ReliefWeb).

Ecuadorian Views of Colombians:

"There´s both good and bad in Ecuador. I came with my daughter, but there´s no work and some Ecuadorians treat us badly." – Ms Pagonis

  •  Ecuadorian politicians and the media sometimes like to blame Colombians for increased insecurity along the northern borders and increased crime, along with pointing the finger at refugees for stealing jobs from Ecuadorians(Refugees International).
  •   Male employers can sometimes take advantage of the vulnerable status of Colombian refugee women.
  • In some instances, Ecuadorians do not like renting housing to Colombians and if they do, usually charge Colombians rents at a much higher rate.

What´sbeing done about this:

  •  Refugees are being housed in 11 shelters near the border and their basic needs are being met(International Herald Tribune).
  •  UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the head organization that watches out for Colombians refugees.
  •  The Quito Mennonite Church often takes in Colombian refugees, providing psychological care, educational services and assistance to families in finding ways to support themselves(Hollinger-Janzen).
  • To address the needs of Colombian migrants, CRS is partnering with the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference Committee for Refugees to develop strategies for the care and protection of refugees in seven dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Quito, where most of the refugees reside(Catholic Relief Services). 

 How Colombian Refugees can Apply for Asylum(Refugees International):


"Refugee women and men have the right to benefit from the services offered by the Ecuadorian government. But health, more than a service, should be considered a right of the whole population." -Minister of Foreign Affairs María Fernanda Espinosa


  • The process is simple enough, according to Refugees International.
  •   When refugees arrive, they can register with the UNHCR, beginning the asylum process.
  • The applicant begins a preliminary interview with the UNHCR or any other partner agencies for asylum.
  • The applicant can also receive assistance in the form of food, rent subsidies, and non-food subsidies.
  • Three months is usually the amount of time the assistance lasts, usually the theoretical amount of time needed for the National Eligibility Commission to decide the case.
  •   More often than not, the process lasts much longer in practice, sometimes as long as six months.
  •   During the time the applicant is seeking asylum, he/she is not allowed to legally work.
  • Sometimes, Colombian refugees will work in the informal or black market, being subject to exploitation, due to the UNHCR’s assistance not being sufficient enough to meet their needs in most cases.
  •   UNHCR itself sometimes does not have enough funding to fully provide for the needs of the refugees.
  •   Asylum applicants must provide proof of persecution.
  •   If applicants are denied, they have the right to appeal.
  • If denied a second time, applicants must either apply for an immigrant visa or seek asylum in another country.



  •   "There's both good and bad here in Ecuador. I came with my daughter but there's no work and some Ecuadoreans treat us badly." – Maria, Columbian woman(Schweimler)
    (BBC World News, November 15, 2005)
  • "This fear turns into stigmatisation and even xenophobia," Guillermo Rovayo of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Quito on the growing fear of Colombians in Ecuador(Schweimler)
  •  "Refugee women and men have the right to benefit from the services offered by the Ecuadorian government. But health, more than a service, should be considered a right of the whole population." -Minister of Foreign Affairs María Fernanda Espinosa(Orellano)
  •   "I want to thank you and the Ecuadorian government for everything you have given us – for the opportunity to live in peace," – 38 Year old Colombian woman to Ecuador’s foreign minister(Xavier).
  • "Our ancestors lived for the gospel in exile; through persecution, discrimination, oppression, silencing, displacement and death. Today, the migrants, refugees and displaced people are our brothers and sisters. The Mennonite church, faithful in service and love to our neighbors, will pick up this work as an example of discipleship and solidarity,” Liliana Ocampo(Mennonite Missionary Network)
  •    “The most special thing is that God invites us to break these barriers and borders that divide us. Today the city of Quito can say that some Colombians are an influence in building the kingdom of God - people who are just, tolerant, organized and happy.” ‘ Ocampo

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.(Billsborrow, Richard E.)



  • The majority of Colombian refugees flee to the provinces of Esmeraldas, Imbabura, Pichincha, Carchi, and Sucumbios(Billsborrow 8).
  • In our findings, we found that males were, by far, usually the ones surveyed more in most instances with males consisting of the majority of heads of households fleeing into Ecuador as refugees at 70.0% while women were a much lower 29.3%(Billsborrow 10).
  • Of the males and females, 26 percent of all the male refugees were married, 24.5 percent of them were currently married, 43 percent of them were in consensual unions, 1.5 percent of them were widowers, 0.5 percent of them were divorced, and 4.5 percent of them were separated from their spouses. With females, 23.8 percent of them were single, 23.4 percent of them were already married, 34 percent of them were in a consensual union, 6.6 percent of them were widowed, 0.4 percent of them were divorced, and 11.9 percent of them were separated (Bilsborrow 18).
  • Colombian refugees come from a diverse array of areas from the provinces of Colombia. By far, the biggest areas seem to be Narino, Putumayo, Caqueta, and Huila(Billsborrow 22).
  • On average, 55.8 percent of all refugee seekers end up in Pichincha and Sucumbios while 44.4 percent go to Imbabura, 18 percent go to Esmereldas, and 6.4 percent of them head to Carchi(Billsborrow 23).
  • There are many reasons for Colombian refugees wishing to leave their homes. Among these reasons, fear of violence along with fear of guerrillas were the chief motivators for refugee migration(Billsborrow 26).
  • Aside from wanting to leave Colombia, the refugees also had their reasons for coming to Ecuador. The chief reasons were that they were looking for work and that they had relatives in Ecuador. A large 64.1 percent of them came to Ecuador for “Other” reasons(Billsborrow 28).
  • In terms of refugee status and intent on returning to Ecuador, the refugees gave varying answers. A large 83.8 percent of them had no intention of returning to Colombia while 8.5 were unsure. Only 7.8 percent said that they intended to move back to Ecuador.
  • These are the problems encountered by men and women in regards to many of the rights they lack while in Ecuador(Billsborrow 96).
  • Several men and women also reported being vulnerable along with threats to their livelihoods being a central concern(Billsborrow 98).
  • In this, fears of being detained, beaten, robbed, raped, denounced, deported, or being pursued were chief concerns amongst Colombian refugees, both men and women. Women had a greater fear of being raped and robbed while men were far more afraid of being pursued by armed gangs(Billsborrow 101).
  • The largest percentage of assistance for Colombians come from the UNHCR while Churches, NGOs, and other organizations make up the rest.
  • In terms of the types of aid received by refugees, food is the largest, adding up to 90.1 percent. Below, Health, Education, and Money rank second highest while clothing and housing remained relatively low.

  • Refugees Map of Ecuador Table 2.1
    Table 2.2
    Table 2.3
    Table 3.1
    Table 3.2
    Table 3.4
    Table 3.5
    Table 3.6
    Table 11.1
    Table 11.2
    Table 11.3
    Table 11.4
    Table 11.5



  • Leech, Gary. “Fifty Years of Violence.” Colombia Journal, May 1999.
  •  “Colombian Refugees in Ecuador Receive Small Business Aid from UN.” UN News Centre, January 17, 2008. <>
  •  “More Colombian refugees need support in Ecuador, says UN agency.” UN News Centre, February 22, 2008. <>
  • The Associated Press. “Number of Colombian Refugees in Ecuador rises to 1600.” International Herald Tribune, August 26, 2007. <>
  •  “Concern over Colombian Refugees.” BBC World News. November 15, 2005. <>
  •  “Helpin Colombian Refuees in Ecuador.” The Catholic Relief Services.
  •  “Ecuador: International Support Needed for Colombian Refugees.” Refugees International. April 24,2004
  • Schweimler, Daniel. “Limbo for Ecuador’s Colombian Refugees.” BBC News, November, 13, 2006.
  •  “Caught in the crossfire: Displaced Colombians at risk of trafficking.” ReliefWeb, December, 31, 2005.
  • Hollinger-Janzen, Linda. “Dangerous discipleship for Ecuadorian Mennonites.”  Mennonite Mission Network, March 2, 2006.
  • Orellano, Xavier. “Ecuador tells refugees they have free access to public healthservices.” Reuters Foundation, September 10, 2007.
  • Bilsborrow, Richard E. “The Living Conditions of Refugees, Asylumseekers, and other Colombians in Ecuador.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ecuador County Report, October 2006.