By Virginia Hebrero
GENEVA – A top Ecuadorian official appealed on Thursday to the international community to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis generated by the presence of 135,000 Colombian refugees in his country as well as the financial effort Quito is making to attend to them.
Internal and External Security Minister Miguel Carvajal traveled to Geneva to inform the U.N. Refugee Agency and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about the situation faced by Ecuador, the Latin American country with the largest number of refugees stemming from Colombia’s internal conflict.
“This is the most significant refugee situation in the Western Hemisphere, but it is little known in the international arena,” he told Efe during an interview in Geneva.
He recalled that half of the 135,000 Colombian refugees “live along Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, a poor region, and they don’t live in refugee camps but in the local communities.”
Ecuador, therefore, asked the U.N. Refugee Agency last year for $23 million through 2011 to fund programs to assist those communities that take in refugees, although that money did not suffice to cover Quito’s expenses.
“Ours is an open-arms, solidarity policy, but one that implies expenditures on health, education, energy. We estimate that per year Ecuador invests between $39 million and $50 million just in (programs to benefit) refugees,” Carvajal said.
That total does not include the enormous security and military re-equipment costs Quito has incurred to prevent illegal armed groups from crossing the border, Ecuadorian authorities say.
“Ecuador’s northern border has seen its security, arms-trafficking (and) drug trafficking problems worsen, because there are close to 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of coca crops (in the region) facing Ecuador, and processing (that raw material into cocaine) requires laboratories, many of them installed on the border, on both sides,” the minister said.
On the Colombian side, he added, control is exercised by illegal armed forces – leftist rebels and rightist militias – while the Colombian state has a weak presence.
Colombia, which receives roughly $500 million a year in military aid from the United States, has a 400,000-strong army.
“We’re talking about close to 3,000 (Colombian) troops and police in the best of cases, and two fixed and two mobile checkpoints along a 700-kilometer (435-mile) border, 80 percent of which is jungle,” Carvajal said.
“It’s a very permeable border, where the irregular groups cross into Ecuador, are repelled, and there are attempts to control the drug-trafficking corridors,” he added. “And it’s under these circumstances that we receive the Colombians who flee from the conflict.”
Carvajal said Ecuador has some 7,000 soldiers and police stationed along its northern border and plans to deploy another 4,000 members of its security forces to the area.
“The armed forces have 40,000 troops, half of whom are volunteers who, under the constitution, cannot be assigned to areas of military risk, and the other half professionals; that means that of our 20,000 professionals we have up to 11,000 in that region,” he said.
Maintaining that military presence “means at least $100 million per year, aside from the investment Ecuador has had to make in terms of military re-equipment costs after the bombing” by Bogota of a clandestine Colombian rebel camp on Ecuadorian soil, he added.
On March 1, 2008, Colombia launched an airstrike on a hideout of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Killed in the bombing and subsequent raid by ground forces were 26 people, including FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes, an Ecuadorian citizen and several Mexican college students.
Ecuador severed diplomatic ties with Colombia two days after the attack and relations between Quito and Bogota remain tense.
Referring to Colombian allegations that Ecuador’s leftist government is providing support to the FARC, Carvajal said that “is a politically motivated argument to hide the problem faced by Colombia,” the scene of a decades-long battle among rebels, security forces and right-wing paramilitaries.
“The Ecuadorian government has clearly expressed that it will not tolerate the presence of any illegal armed group, and if people say there’s tolerance that would be ignoring the problem and the effort made by Ecuador over the past 2 1/2 years,” the minister said.
“If Colombia is aware of the location of members of the FARC let them tell us. We have a permanent military and police communication mechanism” that is functioning despite the rupture in diplomatic relations, Carvajal said. EFE