UNHCR, Congressman react to killings of community leaders in Ecuador

According to the United Nations High commissioner for Refugees, Ecuador has the largest refugee population in Latin America, with some 20,000 registered refugees and some 37,000 asylum seekers. These numbers are up from only a few hundred in the year 2000, but they represent only a fraction of today’s population of concern. Under-registration and lack of documentation are major challenges and it is estimated that between 130,000-140,000 people may be in need of international protection.

The majority come from Colombia, which shares a 600-kilometer border with Ecuador stretching from the western Pacific Coast to the Amazonian jungle in the east. The bordering regions of Nariño, Putumayo and Amazonas are among the worst affected by the internal armed conflict in Colombia. The situation at the border is tense, leading to repeated security incidents that have a strong impact on refugees and internally displaced people on both sides.

SDPnoticias.com reports that the UNHCR in Ecuador

repudiated the murder of two community leaders in the Amazonian province of Sucumbios, which borders Colombia. “Do not lose hope that the investigations that are being developed to identify the perpetrators of this tragic event,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), released the following letter:

It is with deep sorrow that I learned of the recent deaths of two prominent community leaders on the Ecuadorian border with Colombia. Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón were murdered by unknown perpetrators on September 28th and September 29th.

Mr. Lapo was killed in Barranca Bermeja, Ecuador – a town just across the river from Colombia that he helped found 20 years ago. Mr. Pinzón was assassinated in the nearby town of San Martín.

I met Mr. Lapo in November 2008, when I traveled to Barranca Bermeja to learn more about the spillover effects of Colombia’s armed conflict into Ecuador. Mr. Lapo had organized a community meeting for my visit, at which I heard heartbreaking testimonies of the challenges faced by Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in the border region – the people Mr. Lapo dedicated his life to protect.

Although my visit with Miguel Lapo was brief, it was clear to me that he was a dedicated, intelligent, and caring man who fought for peace and the rights of both Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in his community.

While we don’t yet know the killers’ identities, I fear that these murders are part of an effort – whether by Colombian armed groups or narco-trafficking organizations – to intimidate all independent social organizations in the region.

I call on the Government of Ecuador to fully investigate the deaths of Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón. The Government of Ecuador has recently taken important steps to provide legal recognition to the hundreds of thousands of Colombians seeking refuge within its borders. Identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the recent murders is essential if Ecuador is to achieve its stated goal of protecting vulnerable refugee communities and encouraging good governance and development in border communities.

At this moment, my thoughts, prayers and most sincere condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of Mr. Lapo and Mr. Pinzón, and my attention and solidarity are always with the many Ecuadorian border communities that have so generously provided shelter and welcome to so many refugees from Colombia’s violent conflict.

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