I am haunted by our delegation’s visit to the border town of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, haunted by the stories of desperation from the refugee population, haunted by the lack of security offered to the residents, haunted by the lack of civilian state presence and the lack of UN presence besides UNHCR, haunted by the abuse suffered by the people at the hands of Colombian armed groups, the local police and even the Ecuadorian military.
The county of Lago Agrio is inhabited by 55,000 people, 26,000 of whom live in the town of Lago Agrio itself. One in every five people in the town of Lago is a registered Colombian refugee and in the surrounding rural communities, 65% of the population has refugee status. While refugees in Lago have universally complained for some time about xenophobia and lack of access to the labor market, a recent spike in violence and the presence of Colombian armed groups–including the FARC and paramilitaries–has further hobbled their integration prospects.
I was last in Lago Agrio only eight months ago and I was shocked to find the degree to which the security situation has deteriorated during the time between my visits. Lago Agrio has long been an oil town, dominated by a large population of men who rotate through the town on a weekly basis, hired to drill the oil that was discovered in the province of Sucumbíos in the 1960s. In recent years, the Colombian conflict has spilled over the border into Ecuador, dramatically affecting the safety of both the refugee population and the host community. On average, three people are killed every week in the Lago area–four were killed just this past weekend in apparent targeted guerilla or paramilitary attacks. Colombian armed groups operate in the town and in the border communities, imposing their “war taxes” (vacunas), threatening and displacing farmers, forcibly recruiting children, and terrorizing the population in order to try to control routes to bring arms into Colombia and export drugs. The Ecuadorian government has sent thousands more troops to the border since 2008 in an attempt to stem the tide of the Colombian conflict’s spillover, but it has had just the opposite effect in the eyes of many of the refugees, particularly in the view of refugee women.
Sexual and gender-based violence is rampant in Lago Agrio–a full 80% of the female population reports experiencing gender-based violence; the addition of thousands more mobile military brigades to the area has only made the women more vulnerable to violence and abuse. A recent study conducted by UNHCR in the Lago area with 700 refugee women found that 94.5% have experienced sexual and gender-based violence throughout their lives. Local authorities appear to have no interest in prosecuting cases of domestic violence and sexual assault in Lago Agrio, and indeed some local authorities, including police, and members of the military have been implicated in gross cases of sexual and gender based violence.
In 2009 a refugee woman was placed in detention by the local police and died in custody. The coroner’s first report indicated that the woman was raped, that her cranium was fractured, and her body was full of contusions. When it became evident that only police had access to her cell, the coroner changed his determination and concluded that the woman had committed suicide in police custody. Three police who were accused of the rape and murder were then exonerated in a case of utter impunity. In cases of sexual assault, trafficking and domestic violence, the local police and prosecutors are not to be trusted.
Bordellos are a major and legal industry in Lago Agrio. The town is full of brothels and prostitution bars–85 have been legally certified for operation by the Ecuadorian government. Colombian women report being forced into survival sex and prostitution; indeed about half of the women working in the brothels are Colombian. In recent months several of the NGOs in the area have helped refugee women escape the trafficking rings that prey on refugee women and girls. Last year when a newly appointed superintendent of police, a woman brought in from outside of Lago, tried to shut down several brothels that were engaging in the prostitution of minors, she was assassinated. A dearth of legal services and complicity on the part of local authorities in the culture of violence presents challenges for women seeking justice and reparations.
It is little wonder that at the end of one of our interviews with a group of refugees Jesuit Refugee Service has supported, that a refugee woman took me aside to tell me, “I need to get my daughter out of this town. She just turned seventeen and I’m afraid that if I can’t get her to a better place, into a University or higher education, she will fall prey to bad things, bad people.”
There were a few brighter spots in our Lago Agrio visit. JRS is supporting several refugee and host community organizations, focusing on bringing economic opportunities to the population. A refugee who we met with has formed a group of Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians that pool their money to form a micro-loan system in which members can borrow small amounts of money to start small businesses at a 2% interest rate.
UNHCR’s presence has grown in Lago Agrio, and they have been supporting a shelter that is dedicated to serving the needs of women who have survived gender-based violence. La Federacion de Mujeres de Sucumbíos, a member-based coalition that includes 90 small women’s organizations throughout the province, runs the shelter and has been operating in the Sucumbíos province for the last 28 years. A third of the shelter’s inhabitants are refugee women survivors of violence. The women served by the shelter are given comprehensive services including psycho-social care, legal services, reintegration accompaniment, and classes in rights and independent income generation by the Federation. It was apparent that more such projects are necessary in this border area and that the presence of UNIFEM, UNICEF and international NGOs with expertise in gender-based violence would help to combat the culture of victimization and impunity in Lago Agrio and throughout the province of Sucumbíos.
Also apparent: UNHCR does not have the capacity to properly deal with all cases of sexual and gender-based violence and other threats to the physical security of the refugee population in Sucumbíos. JRS and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are among just a handful of international NGOs supporting UNHCR’s efforts to assist and provide protection for the refugee population in the region. Donor support that focuses on a more robust international presence, strengthening the justice system, and relocating and/or resettling the vulnerable refugees must be a priority in the coming year. For a long time the writing has been on the wall–we knew that Lago Agrio and other border cantones in Ecuador were beginning to take on many of the characteristics that typify the Colombian humanitarian crisis. The situation in this border province has now reached a boiling point. Our hope is that our trip might highlight the absolute necessity for the international community to form and support strategies aimed at alleviating the crisis and stemming the tide of cross-border violence.
This blog was originally posted on Jesuit Refugee Service/USA’s website. To read this and Shaina’s other dispatches from her trip click here.