There are some 45,000 registered Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and tens of thousands more who have fled conflict between the Government, rebels and paramilitary groups in their own country but have never contacted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the authorities to seek asylum. Finding a job or starting a business are among the main obstacles they face in their quest to integrate. Even though it is legal to hire refugees, many employers still hesitate to take them on. “This was an ideal opportunity for refugees to show the representatives of financing institutions, micro-credit supporting agencies and other important actors in the financial market, that refugees are prepared and that they can be beneficiaries of their services,” said Jorge Caiza from Fundación Ambiente y Sociedad, a partner agency of UNHCR and co-organizer of the project. He added that most banks and financial institutions in Ecuador currently do not include refugees as beneficiaries, “but we hope that initiatives like these will help to break the myths and prejudices against them.” Prizes ranged from $1,300 to $700. Business ideas showcased included garment making, goods made from recycled material, a variety of restaurants, furniture construction, a small-scale chicken farm, a plumbing agency, handicrafts manufacture, and the fabrication of cleaning goods. UNHCR and the Ecuadorean Government estimate that at least 200,000 Colombians have fled to Ecuador over the past decade to escape the armed conflict in their homeland. An average of 800 Colombians a month request asylum, but an overwhelming majority do not approach UNHCR or government authorities and thus remain anonymous, undocumented and unable to access some of their basic rights as refugees. 17 January 2008The United Nations refugee agency has awarded cash grants to 16 small business ventures in Ecuador under an initiative to nurture the entrepreneurial talents of Colombian refugees and to help them become self-sufficient.