HAVANA TIMES – Colombian educator Mayerlin Vergara Perez was chosen to win this year’s Nansen Refugee Award for rescuing sexually exploited and trafficked children, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced on Thursday in Geneva, reported dpa news.
The 150,000-dollar award highlights the sharp rise in human trafficking in Colombia in recent years, which has been linked to the influx of Venezuelans fleeing the crisis in their country.
“Her unwavering dedication has saved the lives of hundreds of refugee children and restored their hopes for a better future,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
Vergara is a regional manager at the non-profit Fundacion Renacer (Rebirth Foundation) that has been caring for thousands of children since the late 1980s.
She has been working in remote communities in north-eastern Colombia for two decades, combing the streets to help young survivors.
Children who are taken in to live in the Foundation’s centres get psychological support and education, to prepare them for a better future.
Vergara has been raising awareness about sexual crimes against children among authorities as well as among Colombia’s tourism industry, which also caters to sex tourists.
In addition, she successfully lobbied for laws that target those who are involved in sexual exploitation.
According to the UNHCR, Vergara and her organization also help Venezuelans, who are often preyed upon by human traffickers, crime gangs and armed groups along their migration route.
The UNHCR estimates that 1.7 million Venezuelans have arrived in Colombia since 2015.