From Butterflies to refugees: the 2014 Nansen award speaks about Colombia

by Francesca Pierigh*

Today in Geneva, a group of women from Buenaventura, Colombia, will be awarded the Nansen Refugee Award in a recognition of their work in defence of the rights of displaced people in the country. The Nansen Award is a long-established acknowledgement of the work on behalf of forcibly displaced people. It is named after the Norwegian diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen*. This year’s laureates are the Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro - Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, a brave group of women working to support displaced women victims of sexual violence. 

Active since 2010, the Buenaventura Butterflies work to provide assistance to victims of gender-based violence and to promote the rights of women in the communities and with the local authorities. In a country already plagued by violence against women, displacement increases women’s vulnerability to abusive partners who may lose their role in society. Many of them displaced and victims of abuses themselves, the over 100 Butterflies volunteers work tirelessly and courageously to help fellow women reclaim their rights and build a better life, often at a great personal risk. The context in which they operate, the city of Buenaventura, is one of the poorest and most violent cities in present day Colombia, as was recently highlighted by a Human Rights Watch report: slaughter houses are set up in certain neighbourhoods in the city, where paramilitary successor groups and other criminal gangs literally chop-up people, sometimes still alive, and then throw them into the sea. 

Such a reputable award recognising the work of the Colombian Butterflies helps to re-focus some of the international attention to the situation in the country: Colombia unfortunately is one of those conflicts that are easy to forget. Maybe because it has been going on for over fifty years; maybe because it is a so-called low intensity conflict; maybe because it is just too hard to keep track of all the conflicts in the world. And yet, Colombia has been thorn in its internal armed conflict for over five decades. The country hosts the second global largest internally displaced population, 5,7 million people – surpassed only by Syria. Over 200,000 people died in the course of the conflict, and more than two million Colombians have had to leave their country (source). Colombia still is one of the most difficult countries where to defend yours and other people’s rights, with a staggering figure of 78 human rights defenders killed in 2013, and 366 aggressions against them registered the same year.

Displaced people in Colombia / Source

Those who can, and those who are left with no other choice, flee the country, most seeking refuge in the much more peaceful southern neighbour, Ecuador. The steady influx of people into Ecuador – with still around 1,000 people per month crossing the border in 2014 – transformed it into the largest refugee-hosting country in South America. As of 2013, registered refugees were totalling 55,000, the actual number likely to be at least twice as big if considering all those who remain undocumented in the country. The Ecuadorian government initially very receptive to the plight of Colombians, and its legislative framework, the Presidential Decree 3301 from 1992, included the Cartagena refugee definition, thus allowing great numbers of people fleeing generalized violence and massive violations of human rights to find a safer haven in the country. Over 30,000 people were recognised as refugees thanks to this definition in a joint Ecuadorian–UNHCR initiative called Registro Ampliado in 2009/2010. 

However, in 2012, current Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa promulgated the Presidential Decree 1182, a huge step backwards in terms of protection for displaced people. The decree replaces the Cartagena definition with the stricter 1951 Refugee Convention definition, and imposes a long series of obstacles for people to be recognised as refugees. First and foremost, it imposes a 15-day rule to seek asylum: anybody who enters the country (through a regular entry point) and does not approach the governmental Dirección de Refugio – Refugee Directorate, within 15 working days of his/her entry, is automatically excluded from the procedure, even if he/she could have a valid asylum claim. This, and other restrictive provisions in the decree, made the number of recognitions plummet, with less than a 1,000 people being recognised as refugees in 2013. With still around 1,000 people crossing the border. Every month.

That is not to say that before the Onze Ochenta y Dos (as the 2012 Presidential Decree is known) life was easy for Colombians in Ecuador, though. Even if they managed to be recognised as refugees and obtained a regular permit to stay in the country, starting over in the new country has been extremely difficult, and even more so because of the discrimination they face. They may speak the same language, they may even look similar, but Ecuadorians know Colombians to be gang-members, criminals, prostitutes, husband-thieves. And why? Mostly because of the very soap operas their own country, Colombia, produces and distributes. A never-ending irony. 

Colombia will be on the spotlight once again today, in Geneva. Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina will today accept the Nansen Refugee Award, on behalf of all the Buenaventura Butterflies. It is only to be hoped that we will not forget too soon about their work and the conditions in which they operate. But for now, let the world celebrate these modern-day heroes, fighting each day to make other people’s lives better. May they never lose their strength and determination, and may we not be so blind to the plight of displaced people in the world.  

* Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations, which preceded the UNHCR. He introduced the ‘Nansen passport’ for stateless people and refugees, originally for those fleeing the Russian civil war, which came to be recognised by over 50 countries at the time. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of displaced people.

Francesca Pierigh holds a LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights, in Galway. She worked in Ecuador with Colombian refugees.

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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