The population of displaced people in the world has reached its highest number in history.
Every three seconds, a person is forced to leave their home, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. More than 65 million people have been displaced worldwide in 2016, and about half of them are children and teenagers.
But despite the crisis, rising anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe and Northern America continue to frustrate the global response. On World Refugee Day Tuesday, teleSUR looks at how refugees, facing tightened borders and other challenges in Europe, are turning to Latin America for support, as its laws and policies allow them to find shelter and a new life away from war and violence.
Latin America home to world's largest displaced population
According to UNHCR, displaced Colombians are the largest population in the world seeking refugee. And the small country of Ecuador has received the largest amount.
A joint report published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center and the Norwegian Refugee Council says Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world, with approximately 7.2 million people uprooted.
That is larger than those from other war-torn countries such as Syria with 6.3 million displaced and Iraq with 3 million.
Maria Clara Martin, the representative of the UNHCR in Ecuador, told teleSUR that is important to realize that a refugee is someone whose physical integrity is in danger and is forced to seek shelter elsewhere.
“A refugee doesn’t choose to leave their country, doesn't want to leave their country, but generally has to leave their country,” Martin said.
“A refugee is not a migrant that comes to a country searching for a better life for economic reasons or for better opportunities, a refugee is a person that has to flee from his home, has to leave behind in many cases his family, friends, job due to persecution, from religious, ethnic, nationality, political reasons or from a conflict.”
The Colombian refugees have sought shelter for years as the South American nation has suffered over 50 years of a bloody internal civil war between armed rebel groups, government forces and right-wing paramilitaries that has killed some 260,000 people and victimized millions more.
On the other hand, fumigations with glyphosate in large areas with coca crops in Colombia and the impact on the health of the population by the chemicals used has increased the number of asylum applications.
The organization reports that Ecuador has received the largest number of Colombian refugees with more than 60,000. Venezuela is home to the second largest population with over 7,000 refugees and another 173,673 in refugee-like situations. According to the most recent census, some 720,000 Colombians live in Venezuela, though unofficial estimates put the number much higher. Panama and Costa Rica also host significant populations of Colombians refugees, according to UNHCR.
On average, 418 people cross the border between Colombia and Ecuador each month as refugees.
From 1989 to 2016, a total of 233,049 people applied for recognized of refugee status in Ecuador, most of them from Colombia, as 95 percent of those who are sheltered in Ecuador are Colombian citizens.
Renata Dubini, director of the Bureau for the Americas at UNHCR, told teleSUR that the organization is working to strengthen the assistance for vulnerable communities in Colombia, home of the largest internally displaced population in the world, even after the government signed the peace deal with the FARC to end 52 years of civil war.
Despite the historic peace accords, several security issues still loom large as the implementation of the deal rolls out, and Dubini said the UNHCR is focusing its strategy on the opportunity the end of the war could mean for the victims of the internal conflict, especially in rural areas.
"Many have tried to go back, but they are waiting for concrete changes, there's a mistrust," Dubini said. "They need to feel they are welcome. Little by little we will see them returning, but we can't push them to go back."
Refugees seek shelter in the region
While Europe is establishing a closed door policy in the face of an unprecedented crisis and a massive influx of migrants fleeing war and conflict, Latin America and the Caribbean are considered to be a world benchmark in receiving refugees.
According to Dubini, there is a historic tradition towards refugees in the region.
"There is a strong political commitment in the region, the balance of the work we have done in the region is positive. Latin America has a long tradition in protecting refugees," she said.
Statistics show there was a 257 percent increase in the number of asylum-seekers in the Caribbean region between the mid-2015 and mid-2016. Refugees came from nations within the region, such as Haiti, as well as from other countries including Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Nigeria. Belize, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago were the three main destinations for these refugees.
Those who reach Ecuador to apply for refugee status come from up to 70 nationalities, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.
“The most common thing is to find refuge in the closest places to where one is, but in many cases they come from even further due to several reasons, but they’re always looking for security,” Martin explained, adding that personal safety, violence, armed conflicts, femicide, economic crisis or persecution could be cause for displacement.
“The biggest challenge (for refugees) is to integrate into a society," Martin said, noting that Colombian refugees have an advantage of speaking the same language as Ecuadoreans, a challenge that refugees from other regions have to confront.
“Many have to overcome the traumas that they bring with them, they’ve gone through very difficult situations, they’ve seen horrible things in many cases.”
Irene van Rij, head of UNHCR's Field Office in the coastal city of Guayaquil, the country's largest city where some 11.5 percent of the people who seek refuge in Ecuador are located, agreed that it's often an uphill struggle for refugees who settle in the country.
“It’s never easy to be a refugee and come to a new country," she told teleSUR. "They no longer have the social support system that they used to have in Colombia, where they know their neighbors, where if they have a problem, they have their uncles or their aunts, and their entire family that they can rely on."
When they come to Ecuador, said van Rij, they have to rely on themselves.
"We try to help them by building community centers, to bring together Colombians and Ecuadoreans who live in the same neighborhoods because people are just trying to move on with their life and ensure a better future for their children.”
In Ecuador, no one is illegal by law
Ecuador's Constitution, considered one of the most progressive constitutions in the world after being drafted through a constituent assembly and approved in 2008, recognizes the principles of human mobility and universal citizenship, as well as the right of asylum and refuge for all.
The country's pioneering "No one is illegal" immigration policy has become a trailblazing example for activists around the world who are pushing forward similar legislation in their own countries. Ecuador has had first hand experience responding to the needs of its own migrants, as more than 2 million Ecuadoreans were forced to leave the country during the banking and economic crisis set off in 1999.
Former President Rafael Correa made support for migrants abroad a key issue for his administration, and after the country regained political and economic stability, his left-wing government invested in programs to encourage migrant to return home to Ecuador.
“If any country understands human mobility, it is Ecuador, because it itself has produced many people that have left and started to live in other countries and all these people also fall under the new Mobility Law,” van Rij, head of the Guayaquil field office, said.
Article 40 of the Ecuadorean Constitution recognizes the right of every person to migrate. "No human being shall be identified or considered as illegal because of his or her migratory status," reads the text.
"People who are in asylum or refugee status will enjoy special protection that guarantees the full exercise of their rights," continues Article 41. "The state shall respect and guarantee the principle of non-returning, in addition to emergency humanitarian and legal assistance."
The Andean nation took its constitutional right to human mobility even further when the National Assembly approved unanimously in April the Organic Law of Human Mobility, which establishes rights and obligations for migrants, immigrants, persons in transit, those who require international protection and victims of crimes of human trafficking and illegal migrant trafficking.
According to Martin, the UNHCR has upheld Ecuador as an example and hopes the policy will start to reverberate more broadly around the world. “People have the right to be treated with dignity, to have security, education, to work with dignity, to live with dignity, health," Martin said. "That is the meaning of not being illegal. You can’t penalize someone who is fleeing to save their life or for not having a passport.”
"In Ecuador, there are no refugee camps, people are integrated," said Martin.
For Martin, the work is tiring and difficult because the experiences refugees have endured are sometimes almost too intense to handle. But she says her hope is renewed each day as she learns about the positive experiences that many have had in the country after finding refuge in Ecuador.
“I met a group of Afro-Ecuadorean and Afro-Colombian women that had created an association and started their own business of selling textiles and clothes, and they were such a success that they were giving jobs to other Ecuadoreans” Martin said. “Those are the stories that move you.”