QUITO, June 20 (Xinhua) -- Some 55,480 people, 98 percent of them from Colombia, currently seek refuge in Ecuador, making it the country with the biggest number of refugees in Latin America, according to an envoy with the United Nations refugee agency.
The regional representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), John Fredrikson, highlighted the number in an interview with Xinhua when celebrating World Day of the Refugee Thursday.
Fredrikson said most refugees Ecuador takes in are Colombians who have crossed the border to escape the existing armed conflict in their country, with the rest coming from the Middle East.
Ecuador's Foreign Ministry receives about 1,000 new applications for asylum each month, said Fredrikson, who considered the situation as not critical.
In Ecuador, as most refugees live in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Pichincha and Sucumbios, a smaller number of refugees lives in Guayas, Carchi, Santo Domingo, Imbabura and Cuenca, according to official figures.
Fredrikson said the action taken by the Ecuadorian government has been "very positive" as to helping refugees on legal and political level, since the country's Constitution guarantees refugees' rights to education, healthcare and basic services.
However, the economic situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador is "somewhat poor," he said, because they "lost everything when they fled their country and sometimes it is very difficult to access the formal labor market."
"Although many employers have the right to hire these refugees, they do not want to for various reasons and thus many of the refugees work in the informal sector," he said.
According to the UNHCR, more than two thirds of Colombian refugees in Ecuador are working in the informal sector, so the agency provides refugees access to microcredit and entrepreneurship programs in the hope of improving their economic situation.
The Ecuadoran government annually invests 60 million U.S. dollars to assist refugees, while the international community contributes about 15 million annually, according to the country's foreign ministry.
Colombia also recognized the need for greater responsibility in looking after its compatriots, as it has provided half a million dollars for the refugees since 2011, said Fredrikson.
"There is a situation not only in Ecuador but globally that the UNHCR's budgets are rarely covered by international donors," said the agency's representative.