GENEVA - Colombian child rights defender Mayerlin Vergara Perez has won this year’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for her more than two decades of work devoted to rescuing thousands of children from human traffickers and sexual exploitation. This humanitarian prize is given annually by the U.N. refugee agency to honor extraordinary service to people who have been forcibly displaced.
Mayerlin Vergara Perez, known as Maye, is the Caribbean regional coordinator for the Renacer Foundation, a Colombian nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The organization, which was founded more than 30 years ago, has helped rescue about 22,000 child and adolescent survivors. The word Renacer means “reborn.”
UNHCR spokesman Boris Cheshirkov describes the work Vergara has been doing as nothing short of heroic. He tells VOA Vergara leads a team that goes to areas in northeastern Colombia where traffickers and smugglers operate.
“They identify children, and they help them get out of these very dangerous and exploitative situations," Cheshirkov said. "Certainly, she has been in harm’s way, and she has put her life on the line to make sure that these children have a future and are out of the clutches of these criminal enterprises.”
Once the children are rescued, they receive psychosocial counseling to help them overcome their trauma. They also receive educational and vocational training, as well as legal support — a recovery process that can take up to 18 months.
Over the past five years, an estimated 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled to Colombia in search of safety and work. Cheshirkov says many have fallen prey to human trafficking networks, criminal gangs and illegal armed groups. He says there has been a sharp rise in the number of women and girls forced into commercial sexual exploitation.
“What we have seen this year is that this has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic," Cheshirkov said. "The consequences have been severe for forcibly displaced people...And it is work, such as the work that Maye and her organization do that helps children come out of these precarious circumstances.”
The Nansen Award comes with a $150,000 cash prize donated by the Swiss and Norwegian governments. Laureates are expected to use the money to expand and help them enhance the good work they have been doing.