QUITO – Delegates to a bilateral commission began detailed talks here on the problem of Colombian refugees in Ecuadorian territory.
Although Thursday’s meeting did not yield concrete results, the envoys agreed to deepen bilateral cooperation aimed at boosting government aid for tens of thousands of people who have fled the armed conflict in Colombia and taken up refuge in Ecuador.
They said the next bilateral gathering will be held on Oct. 14 in Bogota and include the participation of U.N. Refugee Agency and International Organization for Migration representatives.
At the end of the meeting, the delegations issued a joint statement expressing their willingness to “seek concrete formulas” for addressing the refugee problem in a “comprehensive” way.
Ecuador is home to some 53,000 Colombians officially recognized as refugees, but Quito estimates that another 80,000 are on Ecuadorian soil and in need of international protection.
The bilateral commission met Thursday for the first time and the talks were chaired by senior officials from the respective foreign ministries: Rafael Quintero for Ecuador and Carlos Morales for Colombia.
In the talks, the representatives revised plans for the voluntary return of displaced people, as well as proposals to ensure refugees’ rights are fully protected.
Both delegations pledged to “improve and strengthen” communication mechanisms between their governments to bolster assistance to displaced persons.
Quintero stressed the importance of the gathering, noting that Ecuador has long demanded that Bogota assume its share of the responsibility for attending to the refugees.
Ecuador is the Latin American country with the largest recognized refugee population, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The head of the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry’s department for refugees, Alfonso Morales, said this week in Quito that the country has spent some $40 million to attend to the needs of Colombia’s displaced population, while its neighbor to the north has contributed just $625,000 since 2000.
The Colombian refugee issue is one of the “sensitive topics” that Ecuador wants addressed with a view to fully restoring bilateral relations.
Ecuador severed ties with Colombia after Bogota carried out a March 2008 airstrike on a clandestine Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla camp in Ecuadorian soil without advising Quito beforehand.
In addition to Colombians forced to flee the country due to the armed strife, the population of internally displaced people has grown from 1 million to more than 4 million since 2004, Constitutional Court Judge Luis Ernesto Vargas said earlier this month.
The independent human rights group Codhes, meanwhile, says that some 2.4 million Colombians were driven from their homes between 2002 and 2009, bringing the total number of displaced people to 4.9 million.
While some are displaced by combat, whether between the army and the FARC or among rival drug gangs, many rural Colombians have been turned into refugees by thugs working for business interests seeking control of land or resources. EFE