Ecuador tries to fast-track asylum for refugees

Jose Nelo remembers all too well the rainy night three months ago when he fled his home in Colombia, taking with him only his family and a small handbag. Armed men entered their home, murdered his brother and threatened to kill the rest of the family if they did not vacate the town within 48 hours.

"We had no choice but to leave fast. It didn't matter that we didn't know where we would go. They were going to kill us," said Nelo, standing on a plank in front of the tiny thatched shack his family has recently made home.

The refugee crises spawned by ongoing conflict in neighboring Colombia has left millions displaced, making the nation second only to Sudan in nations with the most internal refugees. Rural farmers and families are frequently intimidated by guerrilla and paramilitary groups, who send them fleeing amid death threats, forced recruitment, the demand of unaffordable taxes, persecution for political organizing, land seizures and intolerable violence in their villages and towns.

As violence has been pushed south into the jungles near the border, more displaced Colombians have sought refuge in Ecuador, a country known to have open policies concerning asylum. Though the nation claims 22,000 registered refugees, the government and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate that there is a much larger ''invisible population'' of 135,000 people in need of international protection.

Nelo's family traveled for three days by land and canoe through dense jungle and mangrove tributaries arriving in Pampanal about three months ago. The small community on the northwestern border of Ecuador is within one of the nation's poorest and most neglected regions. Though the family of six shares a cramped one-room home with no potable water, they feel safe in Ecuador.

Refugees have long been making Ecuador home, but families such as the Nelos may have a better chance at integrating into Ecuadoran society than those before them, thanks to a government initiative to speed up the process of recognizing refugees.

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