Colombian Refugees: No Solutions in Sight



Colombia has been torn apart by conflict for over 40 years.The war that has raged between the Colombian government, guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers has cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 – 200,000 people[1] and has displaced millions of others.According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 3.5 million internally displaced persons inside Colombia, while another 500,000 – 750,000 are seeking refuge in neighboring countries[2].It is the largest displacement crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and constitutes the seventh largest refugee population in the world.

As staggering as these statistics are, the Colombian refugee situation remains largely invisible, and the international community seems to have given up on finding any viable answer to their plight.Three "durable solutions" are sought for refugees: they can return home voluntarily when conditions permit, remain permanently in the country of first asylum if that country allows, or resettle in a third country.These options are available to very few Colombian refugees, who fled due to extreme insecurity at home, are living in precarious situations in their countries of first asylum, and to whom the protection of resettlement has mostly not been extended.



Colombians fleeing the war have landed primarily in Ecuador (an estimated 250,000), Venezuela (an estimated 250,000), and Panama (an estimated 100,000 – 200,000).In all three countries, the conflict has greatly impacted the areas bordering Colombia, though refugees have also fled to major cities and other areas far from the border.In some cases, the fighting and insecurity has crossed the border entirely, and the various factions have embedded themselves among the local populations.Colombian children are particularly vulnerable to targeting and recruitment by Colombian armed groups, and human trafficking is also prevalent in these porous border areas. Many Colombian refugees continue to be pursued by their persecutors once they have fled Colombia.

Some host countries are in the practice of returning Colombians without allowing them to seek asylum.The situation in many parts of Colombia is still so dangerous that some of those returned have been killed.Others choose to return to Colombia because of the discrimination, xenophobia, and lack of job prospects they face in their countries of asylum.

Legal Protections

Many Colombian refugees lack legal status in their host countries, which can be very difficult to obtain.While Ecuador has taken significant steps to recognize Colombian refugees, with a total of about 50,000 recognized refugees, not all neighboring countries have been as responsible in their treatment of Colombians seeking asylum.For example, in 2010, only 2% of applicants were granted refugee status in Panama[3], as the asylum process is highly complex and hard to access, waiting periods are lengthy, and Panamanian asylum law requires a person to have been persecuted by the Colombian government itself in order to receive refugee status.This lack of legal recognition makes it difficult for these refugees to receive the attention and humanitarian assistance that their situation warrants.Even those who are recognized as refugees face considerable obstacles to becoming self-sufficient.


Regardless of their legal status, opportunities for employment for Colombian refugees in neighboring countries are seriously limited.Colombian refugees often suffer from xenophobia and discrimination in their host countries, including limited access to the labor market, health care, and education.Some women end up turning to prostitution, as they find themselves without any other means of survival.Since the recognition rates for Colombian refugees in some countries is so low, there is a corresponding lack of humanitarian assistance, leaving many Colombians without any means of providing for their basic needs.

Durable Solutions

For all of these reasons, it is imperative that the United States provide robust assistance for Colombian refugees overseas and begin resettling vulnerable Colombian refugees in earnest.It is clear that refugees are not safe upon return to Colombia, so that is not a viable option.Local integration would be possible for some Colombian refugees in their countries of first asylum, but host governments need international support to be able to accommodate these populations.The U.S. State Department's Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) spends only 5 percent of its budget on refugee assistance in the Western Hemisphere.This is disproportionate to the vast and growing needs of Colombian refugees in the region

For some Colombian refugees, resettlement to a third country is the only option that will allow them to receive adequate protection.Certain refugees continue to be persecuted in their countries of asylum, while others are not able to support themselves due to exclusion from the job market.Of particular concern are Afro-Colombian refugees, unaccompanied Colombian minors, and refugee women at risk of exploitation, including victims of trafficking, all of whom should be prioritized for resettlement.The UNHCR has estimated that 15,944 Colombians are currently in need of resettlement.Despite the need, the United States resettled only 123 Colombian refugees in 2010, and a mere 57 were admitted in 2009.The United States should begin a robust Colombian resettlement program and encourage other resettlement countries to welcome greater numbers of persecuted Colombians, which would in turn enable host countries to better integrate refugees and protect their rights.


·The United States should ensure that foreign assistance to countries hosting Colombian refugees supports refugee protection and development opportunities for refugee and host communities in need;

·The United States should make greater use of resettlement of Colombians as a strategic protection tool, with the prioritization of particularly vulnerable populations;

·The United States should fund efforts aimed at integrating Colombian refugees into their host countries; and

·The UNHCRshould ensure that separated refugee children receive Best Interest Determinations.





[3] RCUSA Report:"Living on the Edge:Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador: