Nansen Refugee Award 2020 to Maye Vergara Pérez of Colombia

October 2, 2020

Committed to a better future, Maye is a fierce advocate for children and teens who have endured sexual exploitation.

UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate 2020, Mayerlin Vergara Perez, pictured on the beach in Riohacha, La Guajira, Colombia.  © UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso

The 2020 laureate of the Nansen Refugee Award is a Colombian educator who has spent more than 20 years rescuing sexually exploited and trafficked children, many of them refugees. Mayerlín Vergara Pérez, Maye, has dedicated her life to defending children. As the Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the Renacer Foundation she has devoted more than two decades to helping the Colombian non-profit reach its goal of eradicating sexual exploitation and abuse of children and adolescents. Founded 32 years ago, the organisation has assisted over 22,000 child and adolescent survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and survivors of other types of sexual and gender-based violence.

People like Maye represent the best of us. Her bravery and selfless pursuit to rescue and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children is nothing short of heroic,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  “She embodies the essence of this award. Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future,” he added.

UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours outstanding service to people who have been forcibly displaced [for more on  this award, see; https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/award/CC584D13-474F-4BB3-A585-B448A42BB673%5D

For over 20 years, Maye has gone to extraordinary lengths, often risking her own safety to rescue girls and boys who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. On foot, she combs the streets of remote communities in north-east Colombia where human traffickers and smugglers operate. Maye leads a team of dedicated staff at the Renacer Foundation in close coordination with the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, a government body tasked with protecting children in the South American nation. By speaking out against the abuses she has witnessed, she has called on civil society, Colombian authorities, and the tourism sector – which is fertile ground for sexual exploitation and trafficking in the country – to ensure that children and adolescents are protected.

Sexual exploitation has a huge impact on children, emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially,” said Maye. “We see girls who don’t feel that their bodies belong to them. Their bodies have been so maltreated, so abused, so exploited that they feel alienated from those bodies, as if they don’t belong to them.”

In 2009, Maye’s relentless activism and advocacy helped usher in two landmark pieces of legislation. Law 1329 established a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 14 years in prison for those convicted of aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. While Law 1336 targeted the owners of establishments that allow the sexual exploitation of children on their premises.

Since 2015, the deteriorating situation in Venezuela has forced millions to flee. An estimated 1.7 million have sought shelter in neighbouring Colombia. Desperate to find safety and a better life, Venezuelans have resorted to any means possible to flee the country, with many falling prey to human trafficking networks, criminal gangs, and illegal armed groups that are often active along borders. Women and girls are often forced into sexual exploitation by smugglers to pay for their passage.

According to data provided by Colombian authorities, between 2015 to 2019, the number of victims of human trafficking there increased by 23 per cent. The rise is partly linked to the influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants into the country.

Data from the Colombian government shows that in just the first four months of 2020, authorities had already identified a 20-per cent rise in trafficking involving foreign nationals over the previous year. In over half of cases, sexual exploitation was the ultimate goal of the trafficking.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/09/18/nansen-refugee-award-regional-winners-for-2019-are/

https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/10/5f73260b4/colombian-child-rights-defender-wins-unhcrs-nansen-refugee-award.html

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