Colombian who rescues trafficked kids wins UN refugee award
Colombian educator Mayerlin Vergara Perez has won the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award for her work over two decades rescuing sexually exploited and trafficked children, the United Nations announced Thursday.
The UN refugee agency hailed Vergara Perez, known as Maye, for going to “extraordinary lengths” to rescue child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, and for championing harsher penalties for perpetrators.
Maye is the Caribbean regional coordinator for the Renacer Foundation, which has assisted more than 22,000 child and adolescent survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in the past three decades.
Many of those helped have been refugee children, said UNHCR, whose annual Nansen prize honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced.
“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 UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
“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.”
The UN agency celebrated Maye’s commitment to help child victims, often risking her own safety.
“On foot, she combs the streets of remote communities in northeast Colombia where human traffickers and smugglers operate,” it said.
– ‘Huge impact’ of exploitation –
In 2009, her advocacy led to two new laws, leading to harsher penalties for enablers of child sexual exploitation.
One established a mandatory minimum 14-year jail sentence for those convicted of aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The second targeted the owners of establishments that allow the sexual exploitation of children on their premises.
“Sexual exploitation has a huge impact on children, emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially,” said Maye.
“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.”
The award ceremony will be held virtually on Monday. Hosted by Mexican actor Alfonso Herrera, it will feature a keynote speech by Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, a former refugee.
Instituted in 1954, the award includes a commemorative medal, plus $150,000 donated by Switzerland and Norway to fund a project that complements the winner’s existing work.
The award is named after the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was the first high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations, the UN’s precursor.
Last year’s winner was Azizbek Ashurov, a human rights lawyer who fought to end the “phantom” status of stateless people in Kyrgyzstan.
Ashurov helped Kyrgyzstan to become the world’s first country to end statelessness. His organisation helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.