I am just over halfway through my contract with Asylum Access Ecuador, thanks to the Christianson Grant from the InterExchange Foundation, and the experience has already contributed greatly to my professional and personal growth. I work at the Lago Agrio office, which is in the eastern Amazonian region of the country, and just south of the Colombian border. I thought I would take this first opportunity to explain a bit about the work that I do here since that is what drove me here in the first place.
Providing a Safe Haven for Refugees in Ecuador
Asylum Access Ecuador is an NGO that focuses on empowering refugees, mostly in terms of their legal rights. In Ecuador, the vast majority of refugees and asylum-seekers (displaced people applying to be recognized as refugees) are Colombians. These people are fleeing violence and persecution at the hands of one of the various guerrilla groups, such as the FARC or the ELN; one of the many neo-paramilitary organizations, such as the Águilas Negras or the Rastrojos; or the Colombian state. Although the Colombian government is currently in peace talks with the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, the violence continues in many areas of the country, especially in rural areas. While the office in Quito sometimes works with refugees from other countries, in Lago Agrio, we have so far only received Colombian clients.
Applying for Refugee Recognition: The Process
Once a person fleeing persecution crosses the border into Ecuador, they have to begin the process of applying for refugee recognition from the state. This is where Asylum Access Ecuador can offer assistance. As legal advisors, my coworkers and I assist people by preparing them for interviews with the Refugee Directorate, writing appeals to negative decisions, and helping with other processes such as family reunifications and late identity card renewals. We also empower our clients by providing information and helping them to access their rights as refugees. According to the Constitution and the relevant laws, refugees and asylum-seekers have rights of work, education, health care, property ownership, and certain other state services. However, in practice, it is often difficult for them to access these rights due to ignorance, bureaucratic red tape, or discrimination.
Keeping the Community Informed: Rights and Empowerment
In addition to providing direct legal assistance, we also engage in community outreach. One of my colleagues travels once or twice a week to the various barrios, or neighborhoods, outside the city center, to give talks about the processes involved in soliciting refugee status and the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. We also travel about once a month to nearby cities to give similar talks as well as set up mobile legal clinics for those who have a hard time traveling to Lago Agrio. In addition, another colleague holds women's groups about once a month to discuss various topics such as gender issues, self-esteem, and economic empowerment. I also give English classes twice a week, an activity that came out of the suggestions of the women in this group.
Applying my Studies to my Work
In my Master's program, which I completed just last year, I studied many of these issues as I pursued a degree in Latin American Studies as well as a certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Crises. But by working with our clients at Asylum Access Ecuador, I have learned more than I ever could have through just books and reports about the ways people actually experience the Colombian conflict and the struggles they face even after they escape the persecution they are fleeing.
But not everything is work! In my next reports, I'll also be talking about life here in Lago Agrio and some of other places I have visited in Ecuador.