GENEVA – Colombian activist Mayerlin Vergara Perez is this year’s winner of the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, the highest distinction bestowed annually by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), for her commitment in the fight against child sexual exploitation.
Working for the Renacer Foundation, Vergara, also known as “Maye,” has devoted more than two decades to rescuing sexually exploited and trafficked children, many of them refugees, UNHCR said in a statement on Thursday.
UNHCR said that in its 32 years of existence, the foundation has assisted more than 22,000 child and adolescent survivors of sexual exploitation, and other types of sexual and gender-based violence.
“People like Maye represent the best of us. Her bravery and selfless pursuit to rescue and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children is nothing short of heroic,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in a statement.
“Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future,” Grandi added.
Maye said that sexual exploitation has a huge emotional, psychological and social impact on children.
“We see girls who don’t feel that their bodies belong to them. Their bodies have been so maltreated, so abused, so exploited that they feel alienated from those bodies,” she said.
UNHCR stressed that Maye has at times risked her own safety during her work, which often involves walking through remote communities in northeast Colombia where human traffickers operate.
The Geneva-based agency noted that Vergara’s work was key to Colombia passing two pieces of legislation in 2009 that represented a big step forward in the fight against child trafficking.
The first of them imposed minimum sentences of 14 years in prison for those convicted of this type of crime, while the second targeted the owners of establishments where sexual exploitation of children were committed.
The situation of refugees in Colombia has deteriorated in recent years, with the arrival since 2015 of around 1.7 million people from neighboring Venezuela, some of them in desperate situations that often make them easy prey for trafficking networks.
According to data from the Colombian authorities, the victims of these networks have increased by 23 percent in the last five years.
Established in 1954, UNHCR’s annual award celebrates the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), a Norwegian polar explorer and pioneer in the fight for refugee rights.