I am now seven and a half months into my position as a Legal Advisor at Asylum Access Ecuador, providing legal assistance to Colombian refugees, hanks to the Christianson Grant from the InterExchange Foundation. With only two and a half months to go in Lago Agrio, I already feel like I am nearing the end of my time here! But I am still learning new things here every day.
Challenges of Advocating for Refugees
The work can sometimes be frustrating due to the current low levels of refugee recognition from the Ecuadorian government. Even if we feel that someone has a strong case for international protection, our appeals often come back rejected. However, this is not always the end of the road for our clients. Depending on their situation, we may be able to assist them with the "Visa de Amparo" for those with close relatives that are Ecuadorian citizens, or a working visa for those who are able to find formal contracts for at least a year. There is also the option, in some specific cases, for resettlement in another country, often in the United States or Europe.
However, the difficulty of being officially recognized by the Ecuadorian government as refugees often makes the success stories more important for our clients and ourselves. In one case, we had a couple who had previously been denied refugee status because the Refugee Directorate felt that the threats they had received in Colombia lacked credibility. However, they later received more direct threats in another part of Ecuador, so with this information we were able to resubmit their case and with a lot of effort and paperwork, they were accepted as asylum-seekers, which is an important first step to being recognized as refugees. We have also had success when we have been able to prepare our clients for their first interviews with the Refugee Directorate, since many do not understand the interview process well before they apply for refugee status.
An International Community in Lago Agrio
Aside from work, living in Lago Agrio has been a great experience. Since the city is relatively small, many of the workers in the various NGOs here know each other well, thus forming a small international community of people mostly from Ecuador, Colombia and various countries in Europe. It has been great to share our experiences here and to learn about other cultures through these friends. We often get together to cook dinner or go out to enjoy Ecuadorian cuisine, such as maito, tilapia cooked in a banana leaf to give it a distinct, smoky flavor.
Or we spend the night discussing anything from international politics, to our favorite movies from around the world, to the idiosyncrasies of the different accents throughout Latin America. And when we are free on the weekends, we often explore the area around Lago Agrio, visiting such places as the San Rafael waterfall (pictured above), the highest in Ecuador, Parque Perla (below), a small natural reserve, or the nearby city of Coca.
In the two and a half months that I still have here, I know that I will continue to learn new things, whether from my work with our clients or from my friends here. And I know that when July comes, it will be hard to leave!