UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has returned to northern Ecuador to see how the situation has changed since she was last in the country eight years ago and to raise awareness about unaccompanied minors and violence against female refugees.
The award-winning actress, who arrived in the city of Lago Agrío on Thursday, visited UNHCR field operations and the isolated community of Barranca Bermeja, located in thick jungle on the banks of the San Miguel River, which marks the border with Colombia. The little village hosts 34 families, most of them refugees from the violence that has plagued parts of Colombia for decades.
In Lago Agrío, capital of Sucumbíos province, she had a reunion with a Colombian mother whom Jolie last met here in 2002. "At that time she had a lot of hope for her future," the Goodwill Ambassador recalled, while adding: "She was recently treated for cancer. She still holds on to hope."
The award-winning actress also met with refugee women in a shelter for victims of domestic violence, which is a serious problem in the region.
Some of the women in the centre, run by the Women´s Federation of Sucumbíos, told harrowing tales of beatings, incest and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Some women even have to resort to "survival sex" to get lodging to feed their children. Others fall prey to sexual exploitation.
In Barranca Bermeja, Jolie spent time with the community and was impressed by their mental strength in coping with the suffering they had endured in Colombia. One woman fled after two of her family were killed – she did not want to lose any more of her children.
There are around 51,000 registered Colombian refugees in Ecuador, but UNHCR estimates that about 135,000 people are in need of international protection. This makes Ecuador the country with the largest refugee population in Latin America. Many of the Colombians live in remote settlements in the north, like Barranca Bermeja, often too scared to seek help from UNHCR and its partners.
"It's been eight years since I was last here and UNHCR's presence has grown considerably," Jolie noted after her arrival in Ecuador. "They are going into the thickest parts of the jungle to reach the refugees, who are living in very remote locations and in desperate conditions," she added.
"I wanted to come back and meet with vulnerable people and focus on violence against women and unaccompanied minors," Jolie explained. "I am so happy to be able to reconnect with some familiar faces, refugees I had met with during my 2002 trip." Single women, girls and Afro-Colombians are among the most vulnerable of the refugee population.
Jolie will be taking part on Friday (14:00 GMT) in a global live video link from northern Ecuador with Washington, DC, Damascus in Syria and Dungu in north-east Congo. The event, which includes refugees as well as High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is one of UNHCR's top World Refugee Day events this year.