Monday, 26 October 2009

The Painter's Playground

The taxi slinks into Bogotá as a murky sky protests the dawn. Crawling through La Candelaria, a Turner sea emerges from the walls, leaking subtle hues through the darkness.

Hours later and the pastel shades of early morning have been transformed by daylight; buildings compete with colour now, splashing lines of red and yellow and blue across bare bricks. Banksy has been pushed aside in this city, it would seem, which favours instead the playfulness of Picasso with a Miro palette.

But Cosmopolitanism is imposing itself on this streetside gallery, seducing space with slogans and light-up skyscrapers. The bricks split under the weight of new traffic, caught up along the strangling ringroad, layed heavy with tar.

Leaving the painters to abandon their brushes and head north to the 'Street of Dreams', in a town where inspiration belongs to the toddlers, who supervise the painting of ships and doves and lambs on walls made for a fairytale. The siesta comes to clear the streets, but the painting never stops; as people climb up stepladders and lean out of windows to add the final touches.

Colour spills down from this winding street, finding it's way through Guatapé and across the Colombian Departments, lightening the shadow cast by it's disapproving neighbours.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Roles of the Road

It is easy to forget yourself on the road. Playing so many different roles in as many months, it becomes difficult to define who you were beforehand, and what of that person will remain on returning home. There has been the student, the farmer, the backpacker; and within the latter, so many more: the hiker, the playful market haggler, the guided-tour-ist, the assertive "don't rip me off mister" one, the plain old beach-bum, and many more inbetween.

And so it should come as no surprise that one remained in waiting; that of the victim. To be played out unexpectedly, with no prior rehearsal or script, in a picturesque seaside town in Colombia.

There was nothing of significance in the night (but of course, it was night-time); another new place, a stroll to explore, the usual precautions. Yet two men chose to interrupt the standard scene, pulling power from their pockets with a knife and a silver gun. And suddenly the cast changed; the two Colombians off out on the town became bandits, and like the unassuming understudy, the two gringas were transplanted to the stage. To stop in a second, to be pat down without a word, to be left standing while the two foes ran towards the wings.

And they played with perfection. But it seemed that despite entering perhaps their sixth season as The Thieves, the actors lost them their applause. Jittery hands betrayed the anxiety that clutched the weapons, which could not be dispelled by calming words from The Victim. Light feet fell out of step with the quick tune, and although the performance started with precision, it ended with a prickly exchange between the pair.

The Victims returned home with lighter loads; empty pockets waiting now for new roles, whatever & wherever they choose that to be. Whilst others sit with their spoils, weighed heavily down with tools of aggression, and wish for the life they could not steal.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Caught up in the Caribbean

With sandy feet we crept into our hammocks in the darkness, strung high between wooden beams and under a roof thatched thick with leaves. There were no walls, yet no breeze came, halted instead by a heavy air, thick with the days' heat. The slow waves struggled against the shore just meters away, and somewhere amongst the stillness, sleep came.

Hours passed in distant dreams, until the breeze arrived and the muffled sound of raindrops on sand stirred us from our slumber. In the distance the sea was illuminated by camera flashes from the sky, which in return exhaled groans of annoyance at the midnight interruption. The rain began to fall with more force now, shedding it's hot burden on the sand. Yet suddenly an angry wind swept in from another continent, to pick up the sky and rain and sea, and wreak havoc upon the shore.

The sky in turn let out a Biblical crack, which shook us in our frames, and silenced the night into shock. But Poseidon was roused by the racket, and cast waves full of frustration at the beach. The wind persisted, and plucked seasalt and raindrops to coat our sorry skin.

We cocooned ourselves in tightly-spun sheets, yet the wind still shook us through the restless night. It caught up the mosquito nets like sails, and rocked us violently, like the children of Hades in our broken cribs.

With drooping eyes and dampened skin, we felt the night pass with the hours, as the wind swept the electric sky over our heads. Poseiden drifted to sleep, finished with his futile tantrum, and we were left with the raindrops, falling lightly on the sunrise.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

"There is a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Ecuador due to the influx of Colombian refugees."

Far away from the bars of Mariscal and the beaches of Montañita, lies a side not often seen by travellers to Ecuador, who rarely stop for more than a stamp on the Colombian border. Yet despite being the second-smallest country on the continent, Ecuador also has the largest refugee population of all the South American nations, with "20,000 registered refugees and some 37,000 asylum seekers" (UNHRC), before even beginning to count the thousands unregistered. Most of these come from neighbouring Colombia, where the ongoing internal conflict creates a vicious climate from which the thousands flee.

But thankfully, organizations such as Asylum Access, and people such as Ryan Lozar, exist to offer assistance where it is desperately needed. Asylum Access is a San Fransisco-based nonprofit organization,"dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America ." They place well-qualified law students and volunteer lawyers in the places they are needed the most. Ryan Lozar is one of those clever people, who gave up life with a big city law firm in New York to travel to Quito. We met in a farmhouse not far from there, and my immediate fascination in his work inevitably led to my typing away with his words.

1. Could you speak a little about the organization you work for; Asylum Access?

Asylum Access’s general aim is to provide legal representation to people who have fled their home countries as they seek to secure a formal refugee status designation in a second country. In order to meet the legal definition of a refugee, these individuals must prove to their host country that they have a well-founded fear of persecution were they to return to their home country due to their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Some also have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries due to generalized violence that exists there, as is the case in certain regions of Colombia. Once an individual is designated as a refugee, Asylum Access also strives to aid him or her as they attempt to integrate in the host country’s society.

2. What is your role; what do you do day-to-day?

Asylum Access Ecuador has an office in Quito which operates as a free legal services clinic. We are located across the street from Ecuador ’s Department of Refugee Affairs and so we have a constant stream of walk-in asylum applicants seeking legal advice. These clients seek advice on what to expect during their asylum interviews and how to file an appeal if their initial asylum application is denied. During office consultations, I conduct asylum interview prep sessions during which I explain what is the technical legal definition of a refugee, and help them to identify key moments of their life stories that reflect the definitional elements.

These clients also face a range of social integration problems, i.e. their children are improperly denied the right to enroll in school, their employers refuse to pay them the full range of benefits due them under Ecuadorian labor law, or banks improperly refuse to allow them to open bank accounts. All of these actions violate the Ecuadorian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against a person based on their migratory condition. With respect to clients facing social integration problems such as these, I intervene directly with the discriminatory actors, explaining their constitutional and legal obligations to treat refugees like any other Ecuadorian. If a courteous conversation does not convince them to comport with the law, I help the affected client to secure government intervention by filing complaints with the appropriate enforcement agency.

Another important aspect of our services relates to our clients’ physical security. Many Colombian refugees continue to receive threats to their physical safety even in Ecuador, as Colombian armed groups have a presence here, too. At times local prosecutors and police refuse to get involved, and I intervene on behalf of a client by going to the police station and pressing the matter.

3. What is the main reason for Colombians to seek asylum in Ecuador?

The principal reason Colombians seek asylum in Ecuador is the well-founded fear for their physical safety they suffer as a result of the ongoing armed conflict in their home country. At times a Colombian citizen is fearful because an armed group has made a specific threat against him or his family. Other times a Colombian citizen is fearful because she lives in a “red zone,” meaning that the area where he lives is marked by generalized violence.

4. How are refugees and asylum seekers dealt with once they cross the border?

Generally speaking, this depends on the actions that the asylum seeker himself takes upon crossing the border. As a member of the Andean Community with an Andean Card, Colombians have the right to enter Ecuador freely for 90 days, and do not have to declare their intentions at the border. Once inside Ecuador, Colombian refugees take a variety of actions. Some make their asylum applications immediately, and they receive a card establishing their legal status in Ecuador during the pendency of their application. Others – and this is the case for the vast majority of Colombian refugees – do not apply for asylum upon entry, instead living for years in an undocumented and insecure state.

With respect to refugees who do not avail themselves of the asylum application process, they live in an extremely vulnerable condition. After the initial 90 days of legal status that they enjoy due to the Andean Card, they are susceptible to deportation by the migration police if they are discovered. A panicked asylum application at the moment of arrest might save them from deportation, but this is a dicey proposition.

5. Does the international community provide assistance in improving the situation, or is it the sole responsibility of the Ecuadorian government? Should they be helping more?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a strong presence in Ecuador. In addition to its independent operations, it partially funds the work of Ecuador ’s Department of Refugee Affairs, which is very important given the heavy work load and resource needs of that government agency.

Money from the UNHCR also funds social services for refugees through independent organizations like the Red Cross and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. These social services include the provision of rent subsidies, food rations, educational programs, medical aid, and psychological services. Aid like this is key for recently-arrived refugees’ health as they try to establish a successful, integrated, self-sustaining existence in Ecuador.

UNHCR’s aid only goes so far, however. As you observed, there is a tremendous humanitarian crisis in Ecuador due to the influx of Colombian refugees, and there is certainly a need for additional resources.

6. Is the Ecuadorian legal system sufficient for dealing with such a huge number of refugees and asylum seekers? Is it fair?

The Ecuadorian legal system offers due process mechanisms to asylum applicants that makes the system technically fair. Some of the due process mechanisms include a person's right to tell their story in a personal interview as they pass through the asylum application process, and also that they have the right to appeal if they are denied.

In addition, Ecuador has distinguished itself in the world of refugee affairs in a very important way: It has implemented a novel program to aid the huge number of refugees through what is called the Amplified Registry. The Amplified Registry is a government-sponsored mobile brigade that travels the Ecuadorian side of the Ecuador-Colombia border registering the thousands of undocumented Colombian refugees living there. Due to lack of education or lack of resources, many of these Colombian refugees have lived in the border region for many years without ever formally applying for asylum. Through the Amplified Registry, the Ecuador government made a proactive effort to help these people by creating a mobile Department of Refugee Affairs unit to process their asylum applications in their own communities.

7. Tell me about the most memorable case you have worked on.

It’s difficult to say what has been the most memorable case I have worked on, as every case has something that draws your attention, whether it be an interesting legal or factual issue, or simply the openness and vulnerability of a particular client. But there is one refugee family that does stick out in my mind. They are a husband and wife with six children, and I have worked with the family on all sorts of issues, from education discrimination, workplace discrimination, lost documents, security problems, petitions for resettlement to a third country and more.

Given all of the issues swirling around in their lives, it is almost as if this particular family represents the full microcosm of the Colombian refugee experience. Having spent so much time with this family on so many different problems, they have humanized the Colombian refugee experience for me the most and are the most memorable.

8. Do you think the recent announcement of a new US military contract with Colombia will have any affect on the number of people seeking asylum in Ecuador?

The new US military contract with Colombia will probably have an effect on the number of people seeking asylum in Ecuador insofar as it will strengthen fumigation operations on Colombia’s coca fields. These fumigation operations have many side effects that increase the number of refugees fleeing Colombia. For one, when armed groups’ coca crops are damaged, it is likely that citizens living in those areas are going to suffer increased extorsion to make up for the lost narcotrafficking profits.

Also, it is important to note that the fumigations don’t just kill coca crops, they kill adjacent legal crops as well, which destroys the livelihoods of campesinos and creates economic migrations. There is a lot to say about the effects of Plan Colombia and additional U.S. military bases on Colombian migration patterns, but these are just two observations.

9. In your experience, have asylum seekers from Colombia been the victims of prejudice here in Ecuador?

Yes. Anyone who spends any amount of time in Ecuador will inevitably hear laments about how Colombian migrants are criminals and are ruining Ecuador ’s peaceful culture. This prejudice is further reflected in the number of Colombian refugees we receive in our office who are victims of discrimination in housing, education, and work.

10. It seems that although you, and a variety of organisations are working hard to improve the situation, there is still a lot of work to be done. Is there any way visitors to Ecuador or Colombia can help?

Asylum Access Ecuador is just one of many non-profit organizations working on refugee issues in Ecuador and Colombia. Many of these organizations accept volunteer workers for short and long-term periods. In addition, donations are always very welcome and make a palpable difference, especially for organizations that provide direct aid to recently-arrived refugees in Ecuador.

Many refugees arrive in Ecuador with little more than the clothes on their backs, having abandoned all their wordly possessions in their sudden flight from their home countries. They are frequently in dire need of rent, food, education, and medical subsidies as they try to find work and build their lives anew.

For more information, or to make a donation, visit:

Asylum Access

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)