By Kimberley Brown
Gina Pena said she was leaving a humanitarian aid office in Ecuador’s capital Quito one day when she saw the man who had threatened her life back in Colombia.
“If I open my mouth, he’ll cut my family up. That’s what he told me,” Pena recalled, adding she no longer feels safe in the city.
Pena, 37, fled to Ecuador a year and a half ago with her three children after receiving several death threats from members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest active armed rebel group.
She knew the threats were real, as she has lived through one of Colombia’s worst armed conflicts. She said her father was disappeared when she was seven, she was brutally raped and almost killed when she was 11 and her family was displaced three times within Colombia due to the violence.
When Pena arrived in Ecuador, she knew she was not far enough from her threats, so she applied for the United Nations refugee agency’s (UNHCR) resettlement programme, whereby they transfer refugees in asylum countries to another state that has agreed to admit them and grant permanent settlement.
But in September of 2018, Pena received her official rejection by the UNHCR to be relocated.
According to the letter, which Pena showed Al Jazeera, her case “does not meet the criteria for resettlement”. No other explanation was given.
“If the UNHCR doesn’t help me, they’re going to kill me,” she told Al Jazeera, “From here, I have nowhere else to flee.”
Pena’s story is unique, but she is not alone. She is one of dozens of Colombian refugees who have been protesting in front of the UNHCR’s office in Quito since June 1.
They say the global refugee agency is not taking the threats against their lives seriously, and they refuse to leave until the UNHCR promises to relocate them to another country.
The group of protesters, which includes 39 women and 29 men, as well as 40 children, have been occupying the space day and night, saying their homes are not safe to return to.
They sleep in makeshift tents on the pavement at night, hold up signs for passing cars during the day, and occasionally face the UNHCR offices to sing the Colombian national anthem.
Despite the peace agreement that was signed between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, violence has continued in many parts of the country.
Colombia has reported the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, the UN said in a report on Wednesday. More than 190,000 people have fled the country due to continued violence, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Some of the violence has been concentrated in the southern states of Narino, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Meta, where most of the refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR are from.
These are also areas that have high rates of poverty and large Afro Colombian populations.
Protesters demand more action
Protesters said they sent a formal letter to the UNHCR in Quito about three months ago, asking that resettlement cases be streamlined, and others be reopened and re-evaluated.
The agency responded with a letter, seen by Al Jazeera, saying these requests “exceed the powers and mandate of the UNHCR” and offered to help them access rights and services within Ecuador. But many say this is not enough.
UNHCR responded to questions by sending Al Jazeera a press release published earlier this month.
In the press release, the agency said the resettlement programme is one of three possible solutions for refugees according to their mandate, but “it is not an individual right that can be demanded by any person or group.”
It also said the programme has limited space, and that “on a global level, less than 0.4 percent of the more than 25 million refugees in the world were resettled in 2018.”
The UNHCR maintains that it has always been open to receiving both individuals and families in need of assistance, including those who are protesting outside their office.
In a recent interview with local TV station Teleamazonas, UNHCR representative Maria Clara Martin said the agency does not make the final decision about resettlement cases, this is made by the receiving countries.
Another refugee who identified himself as Luis Carlos said he was denied resettlement because his case is “too sensitive”.
He came to Ecuador a year and nine months ago from the Colombian coastal city of Buenaventura, where he said he was being extorted by narco-traffickers for more than four years.
Carlos said the UNHCR in Quito told him that “they couldn’t assure my security going ahead because my case is delicate,” and said it would be better if he sought security from the Ecuadorian government.
“I’m thinking that if they don’t have the capacity to give protection, that’s more reason why they should get me out of here, no?” Carlos told Al Jazeera.
‘It’s like a lottery’
One of the problems is that there are no clear criteria for the resettlement programmes. The selection is “discretionary”, according to Giovanna Tipan Barrera, the former director of the human mobility management unit in Ecuador’s provincial government of Pichincha, where Quito is located.
She received and helped people applying for refugee status in Quito for more than five years, and said the first thing Colombian refugees do is apply for resettlement to a third country, as it is their last option.
“For those waiting to go to a third country, it’s like a lottery,” Tipan Barrera said.
“The UNHCR always says they don’t manage this information. They send it to the third country and the third country decides, and if they accept you they accept you, and if not then not. And they will never tell you why,” she added.
Tipan Barrera said the numbers of Colombian refugees to Ecuador has not diminished since the peace agreements were signed, but the problem has been overshadowed by the Venezuelan migration that has been much more visible.
Over the last four years, 1.3 million Venezuelans have entered Ecuador, and about 350,000 have stayed in the country.
More than 4,000 of those have applied for refugee status in Ecuador, according to the Ecuadorian government. An estimated 120,000 have been granted legal residency status.
But the large majority of refugee and asylum claims continue to be Colombian, who made up over 97 percent of all people seeking asylum in Ecuador in 2018.
The UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement needs for 2019 estimates that there are more than 1,100 cases of refugees in Ecuador in need of resettlement, and 900 of these cases are Colombian.
The refugees in front of their office continue to sweep the pavement every night before setting up their tents.
“We live here now,” one of the protesters told Al Jazeera, saying they will only leave if they are resettled in a safe place, abroad.
Credit: Al Jazeera, www.aljazeera.com