An educator and rights defender who has spent more than 20 years rescuing exploited and trafficked children in Colombia, represents “the best of us”, the UN refugee chief said on Thursday, as she was named the winner of this year’s Nansen Refugee Award.
Mayerlín Vergara Pérez, the Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the Renacer Foundation, has worked hard helping the Colombian non-profit reach its goal of eradicating sexual exploitation and abuse of children and adolescents.
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.
For more than two decades, Ms. Vergara Pérez 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 has combed the streets of remote communities in north-east Colombia where human traffickers and smugglers operate.
She explained that the exploitation left youngsters with deep mental scars.
“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”, she said of the girls who have been rescued.
Founded 32 years ago, the Renacer Foundation has assisted over 22,000 child and adolescent survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and survivors of other types of sexual and gender-based violence.
The 2020 Nansen Award laureate leads a team of dedicated staff in close coordination with the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, a government child protection body.
In 2009, Ms. Vergara Pérez’s relentless activism and advocacy helped usher in two landmark pieces of legislation: a minimum 14 year prison sentence for those convicted of aiding in the sexual exploitation of children, and the other, targeting establishment owners who allow children to be sexually exploited on their premises.
“She embodies the essence of this award”, upheld the UN refugee chief. “Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future”.
A surge in activity
Global estimates indicate that millions of people continue to be trafficked every year, with women and girls accounting for the largest numbers of detected victims, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
And conflicts serve to amplify trafficking practices, such as forced child marriages to armed groups and forced recruitments.
Since 2015, an estimated 1.7 million Venezuelans have sought shelter in neighbouring Colombia, many falling prey to human trafficking networks, criminal gangs and illegal armed groups along borders.
Moreover, tight border restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have pushed many desperate people in search of safety into irregular crossings.
“Eradicating trafficking and protecting children from sexual exploitation is not only a legal obligation - it is also a moral one and requires a concerted global effort,” said Mr. Grandi.
Fighting the crime
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours outstanding service to forcibly displaced people.
To date, more than 82 individuals, groups or organizations have received the award for their unwavering dedication to refugees, and outstanding work on behalf of forcibly displaced or Stateless people.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol – the first international agreement on trafficking in persons, and the first real step from the international community to combat it.
“This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to eradicating this heinous crime”, said the UN refugee chief.