#14 movement
Ralf Oetzel / Oliver Pieper

Your Voice at the Border

“I came here to escape the violence in my country“, a woman from Colombia explains. “I had no other choice”. This is the case for many Colombians who have fled the civil war in recent years and found a new home in Ecuador. Ecuador currently accepts more refugees than any other Latin American country. 55,480 displaced people have found refuge there, according to the recent figures, and 98 percent of them are Colombians.

Despite the high numbers of refugees, Ecuador’s government does its best to offer the newcomers access to education, health and basic services. John Fredrikson represents the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR in Quito, and is full of praise for the Quito government: “The response of the Ecuadorian government has been very positive.” As a result almost 180,000 Colombians have applied for refugee status over the past ten years – but not everyone is granted the coveted document.

The policies of President Rafael Correa’s government are one thing; the daily lives of displaced Colombians in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Carchi and Sucumbíos close to the border are quite another. “Although the Ecuadorian constitution is very progressive when it comes to refugees, there is great uncertainty about refugees’ rights in local communities”, Fredrikson reports. Many Ecuadorians refuse to hire Colombians, for example, although they could, thus driving more than two-thirds of all Colombians into the informal labour market. “This persists despite the fact that most refugees lost everything when they fled” explains the Swedish expert as he describes the precarious situation of most displaced Colombians.

Such is the case in Lago Agrio, for example, the capital of the border province Sucumbíos. According to official figures, one in four inhabitants is a Colombian refugee. UNHCR statistics even indicate a staggering 60 percent in the villages closest to the border. Because the province is so close to Colombia, and as such to the area of conflict, many Colombians hide their refugee status. They don’t want to talk about the past, and very few have the courage to tell their stories.

These are regions in which the native populations also suffer from poverty, which makes integration even harder for refugees from the neighbouring country.

Sucumbíos Province also numbers among Ecuador’s poorest regions. The houses refugees inhabit after they arrive often have neither electricity nor drinking water. These are regions in which the native populations also suffer from poverty, which makes integration even harder for refugees from the neighbouring country.

Yet very few refugees have ever considered returning to their homeland. They are too afraid of the violence. The Colombian government has created a programme intended to speed up the return of the refugees, but their trust in the security measures in their former home has been thoroughly shaken. No one can imagine how the “Law on Victims and Land Restitution” passed in 2011 could actually be enforced. It is also unclear how they might reap the benefits of the law without losing their coveted refugee status.

Few know that they are entitled to restitution, and that the law grants them the right to the land they were driven off.

Colombian refugees have also had very few opportunities to learn about their options, since information about the current situation in Colombia is very scarce in Ecuador and in the border regions in particular. As a result very, few know that they are entitled to restitution, and that the law grants them the right to the land they were driven off. Or that those responsible for displacing them must ask their forgiveness as an act of restitution. All these elements played a central role in the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in La Havana. But in Ecuador, many Colombian refugees have had no access to the agenda of this historical conference held on Colombian soil. How can people make decisions about their personal futures when the information they need does not reach them in the first place?

The refugees cannot count on the private Ecuadorian media either, which only reports sporadically and shallowly on their situation. The news stories lack any kind of quality, and equate Colombians with thieves, drug dealers and guerilleros. Targeted information campaigns by the UNHCR and other civil society organisations often do not reach the people for whom they were intended because refugees live scattered in small villages throughout the region.

Radio stations play a key role in the everyday life of rural inhabitants.

Only community media report on the situation of Colombian refugees in any kind of detail and give them a voice. But to date just two percent of all the radio and television frequencies in Ecuador are in the hands of community media. Radio stations play a key role in the everyday life of rural inhabitants. In the provinces, most people switch on their community stations first thing in the morning. Every day local radio provides answers to important questions like: Where can I sell my products best today, what did the mayor of my community say today, what does the new national water law mean for my village? For most, the radio is their primary source of information.

With the support of GIZ and the Deutsche Welle Akademie from Germany, a new weekly radio programme took the airwaves in January. It is called “Your Voice at the Border” and is designed to provide a wide range of information that will allow refugees to decide for themselves if they wish to remain in Ecuador or return to Colombia.

“Your Voice on the Border” is intended to give the displaced a voice, to offer a wide range of radio listeners access to concrete life experience.

The half-hour show is broadcast throughout the entire border region once a week and is a product of collaboration with the “CORAPE” (Ecuador), “Comunicarte” and “Putumayo” (Colombia) radio networks and “Journalists for Peace”. Above all, “Your Voice on the Border” is intended to give the displaced a voice, to offer a wide range of radio listeners access to concrete life experience.

Additionally the journalists involved are being trained in a variety of subjects from journalistic and technical standards to the media’s unique ethical responsibility regarding the affected refuges. With the help of social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, “Your Voice at the Border” is also designed to appeal to younger listeners and users.

“I had no other choice” – this ambitious project hopes ensure that this sentence uttered by so many refugees in Ecuador is heard less often in future.

Project

The project on access to information for Colombian refugees in Ecuador is part of a series of innovative measures being implemented by GIZ and the Deutsche Welle Akademie. They aim to strengthen the right to freedom of expression and access to information across the globe and are funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Photo: “Challenges to Refugee Protection in Ecuador” by Realizing Rights Blog
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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