World Refugee Survey 2009: Ecuador
The Government formally recognized more than 21,400 refugees but some 135,000, including many of the more than 600,000 undocumented Colombians in the country, are in need of international protection. Most are from Colombia but some 1,900 refugees and asylum applicants are from Peru. Other source countries include Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Iraq, Ghana, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and Armenia.
Afro-Colombians and ethnic Awas and Kichwas began fleeing political and drug-related armed conflict, forced displacement, and forced recruitment in Colombia's southern provinces of Nariño, Putumayo, Valle del Cauca, and Cauca, beginning in the early 2000s with a substantial uptick in 2005 although the scale of the influx has been difficult to quantify.
2008 Events Summary
Asylum seekers filed more than 17,600 applications and authorities decided those of more than 11,100, granting refugee status to more than 4,400, a recognition rate of 41 percent although some 33,000 remained in the backlog.
Until June and after December 17, in order to enter the country, Colombians had to present judicial documentation from Colombian authorities that they lack criminal records. These were nearly impossible for the majority of refugees from rural areas to obtain. The interior ministry declared the measure necessary to "immunize" the country from events in Colombia. The Government amended the decree in January
2009 to exempt recognized refugees, minors, government officials, and employees of international organizations, but not asylum seekers.
Ecuador stationed 11,000 soldiers at the border and maintained several bases. The defense ministry claimed to have destroyed more than 100 clandestine Colombian bases on their territory, compared with 47 the year before.
The Government acknowledged detaining more than 200 individuals, including asylum seekers and refugees, mainly for lack of documentation.
In March, Colombia raided a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC two miles inside Ecuador without notice or permission, killing Raul Reyes, its second-ranking leader. Colombia later claimed to have found emails on Reyes' computer indicating his having met with Ecuador's interior minister, Gustavo Larrea. Larrea said the meeting took place in a third country in January to discuss the release of hostages FARC was holding.
In April, a lynch mob burned two Colombians alive for allegedly killing a local resident in an attempted robbery in the coastal town of San Vicente after the prosecutor called for authorities to dismiss charges against them for lack of merit.
In May, an armed group in uniform apparently from Colombia reportedly attacked the border town of San Martin, tortured members of the exile community, kidnapped a Colombian refugee and two asylum applicants, and reportedly attempted to rape a pregnant refugee woman.
Also in May, the Government approved a Policy on Asylum calling for "enhanced registration" of persons in need of protection, initially in the northern border provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana but eventually nationwide. It would accelerate recognition of refugee status based on a group profile applying the 1984 Cartagena Declaration definition and include refugees in development strategies.
In June, the Government granted legal status to 83 Peruvians in celebration of World Refugee Day.
Also in June, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened an office in the northern border province of Sucumbíos to register refugees residing far from Quito.
In August, the Government announced under Plan Ecuador, a three-year, $200 million development program for the five northern border states to offer residents, including refugees, alternatives to drug trafficking.
In October, a new Constitution went into effect after voters approved it in a referendum the month before. It not only included basic recognition of asylum rights but also provided for group recognition of refugee status. Also in October, the Ministry of Education announced that refugees and other migrants would no longer need to show valid immigration visas to enroll in public schools.
In November, the Government announced that persons posing as agents of international agencies or the Government were defrauding Colombians asylum seekers by offering to register them as refugees of asylum applicants in exchange for money.
In December, over a five day period, the Government began a one-year, same-day, pilot "enhanced registration" project in two locations along the border that registered, interviewed, and issued refugee visas to 190 persons, each in a single day. Previously, the process could take two years. The Government planned to use the procedure to document and recognize as many as 50,000 refugees. Applicants were granted automatic refugee status if they fled Colombian towns known for internal conflict, generalized violence, or massive human rights violations and there were no grounds for exclusion. Others received short interviews to see if they qualified for refugee status under one of 13 thematic criteria, such as whether they, family members, or persons in their direct surrounding have experienced extortion, kidnapping, or belligerent acts. Under the plan, in addition to persons who have never registered, those with pending asylum claims or even those previously denied refugee status will be eligible.
Law and Policy
Refoulement is a constant threat due to lack of registration of refugees and asylum seekers, delays in recognition and documentation of those who have registered, and ignorance and/or malfeasance on the part of police even for refugees with documentation. The Police Commissary, which generally arrests and detains alleged illegal immigrants, also carries out their deportations with no effective right of appeal. Lack of recognition and the legal right to work make refugees vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation, harassment, detention, and deportation. Persons associated with irregular armed groups assaulted residents of temporary shelters for asylum seekers. Reportedly, agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army, and Colombian paramilitary were present in the northern border provinces of Esmeraldas, Carchi, and Sucumbíos. Colombian illegal armed groups are also active in non-border regions and harass, kidnap, forcibly recruit, and sometimes kill civilians. Academic and human rights organizations report extortion and kidnapping in all of the Northern provinces. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annually refers about 60 cases for urgent resettlement "to preserve their life or physical integrity against threats or direct attacks."
Ecuador is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol but maintains a reservation to the Convention's right of association. The 2008 Constitution prohibits refoulement and group expulsion. A 1992 Presidential Decree implements the Convention and Protocol using the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which provided a broader definition of refugee, including persons fleeing generalized violence. Colombians can also enter without visas under the Andean Pact although they must still present a national identification card and receive an Andean Migratory Card. This permits entry as a tourist for 90 days but does not allow work or commercial activities.
The 1992 Decree prohibits refoulement, prescribes a process for seeking asylum, authorizes an Eligibility Commission to decide claims with UNHCR's participation (voice but no vote), and provides a right of appeal and the right to remain while and appeal is pending. It provides for a right to interpretation but not to legal counsel. Rejected applicants have a legal right to appeal to the Minister of Foreign Affairs within 30 days and a legal advisor from the Directorate other than the one that made the initial recommendation processes the appeal and makes a recommendation to the Minister who makes a final decision. By law, appeals should take two months but generally take longer. Appeals are difficult, however, because, until August, the Commission did not give specific grounds for denial. One can also appeal a final denial before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Applicants may remain in the country until a final decision and then for 60 days to regularize their status by other means, go to another country, or leave, but most simply remain illegally. The Decree grants refugees the same rights that the Constitution applied to foreigners in general and the new Constitution extends the rights of nationals to foreigners in the territory.
The General Directorate for Refugees (Directorate), under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the main government asylum agency but only operates fully in Quito and Cuenca. Since June, it has an office in Lago Agrio, but it is not fully functional. UNHCR and partner agencies also register refugees and asylum seekers there and in Ibarra, Esmeraldas, and Santo Domingo. In Quito, applicants must first go to the Directorate's office and register their information into a database, furnish the documents, have their photograph taken, and sign. The registration process generally takes about four months there but between 18 and 24 months elsewhere. Some applicants sleep in the streets to maintain a place in line to apply. Later officials interview family members individually to check for contradictions.
In practice, threats from armed groups do not always count toward refugee status and are often considered private disputes. The Commission also rejects applicants for having an "internal flight alternative" if they did not flee immediately but looked for security in another region of Colombia or stayed with friends or family for a short period and persecution did not occur in the second region, even if the risk remained. The Commission also excludes farmers who cultivated coca for being connected with international drug trafficking even if armed groups forced them to do so or it was their only means of survival.
Most persons in need of international protection, however, do not even register or apply for asylum due to geographic isolation in remote northern border provinces, ignorance about the process, fear of deportation, and fear of potentially identifying themselves to Colombian agents of persecution in Ecuador.
On an exceptional basis, UNHCR submits cases of a few hundred refugees with serious protection gaps for resettlement. Under the Solidarity Resettlement programme between hosting countries and the rest of Latin America, nearly more than a third now go to countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile rather than traditional resettlement countries such as Canada, Norway, Sweden and the United States.
Detention/Access to Courts
Ecuadorian authorities administratively detain hundreds of unregistered or undocumented refugees, including some with expired visas or those working on tourist visas and, in the northern border provinces, even some refugees with documentation and imprison them along with common criminals. Bribery is often necessary to prevent deportation and win release but, when UNHCR or the Directorate is able to intervene with migration police, they usually release the refugees. Refugees also report police harassment, excessive use of force, and use of detention to extort money and/or sexual favors.
The Refugee Directorate issues refugee and asylum seeker identity cards from its offices in the capital, Quito, and Cuenca, which are relatively inaccessible to most refugees and asylum seekers (see below). It can take up to ten months after registration to receive the cards. The cards for asylum seekers explicitly authorize the bearers to remain in the country but are only valid for 90 days. UNHCR issues certificates to registered asylum seekers who have not yet received their cards but authorities do not always recognise them. Refugees and asylum seekers report, however, that authorities sometimes do not recognize even their official registration papers. The Refugee Directorate issues refugees identity cards valid for one year and indefinitely renewable, with the bearer's photograph and signature and a brief explanation of refugee status and rights on the back. A National Directorate of Migration also issues refugees migrant identification cards required by the Immigration Law. Civil Registry offices frequently deny registration to children born in Ecuador of Colombian parents but, after three years of continuous residence, refugees can obtain a residence visa of indefinite duration and naturalize.
The 1971 Migration Law and the 1986 Foreigners Regulation allow migration to detain asylum seekers at ports of entry until the foreign affairs ministry resolves their cases. The new Constitution guarantees every individual access to the courts, regardless of their legal status.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
There are no legal restrictions on refugees' or asylum seekers' freedom of movement but movement subjects the undocumented majority of refugees to detention and deportation. Between Quito to the border and there are four checkpoints where police remove Colombians from buses and reportedly search their belongings and steal items with impunity. On weekends, police set up ad hoc control posts in markets or high transit areas and military brigades also block access to certain towns. Many undocumented refugees and asylum seekers simply stay in border areas.
Refugees cannot leave the country without the Directorate's authorisation which migration officials verify upon exit and re-entry whether overland or by air. To obtain authorization, refugees must present requests justifying their reasons for travel and the time they will spend outside the country. If the Directorate approves, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Travel Documents Directorate issues international travel documents valid for one year and costing $80. The new Constitution, however, provided that "only a judge of competent authority may prohibit the exit of the country."
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Formally recognized refugees are eligible to apply to the Ministry of Labor for work permits but asylum seekers are not. Authorities arrest and detain persons working on tourist visas, including unregistered asylum seekers. Ministerial Agreement 452 of 2006 exempts refugees from paying the $60 fee for obtaining work permits. Undocumented refugees must purchase a labor visa for $1,000 to work legally. The inability of asylum seekers to work legally throughout the lengthy process and that of unregistered refugees generally presses them into the unprotected and low-paying (occasionally non-paying) informal sector as street vendors, cleaners, restaurant staff, agricultural workers, or prostitutes.
Half of refugees and asylum seekers live on less than $1 per day compared to 36 percent of the local population and three-quarters live on less than $2. Unemployment among refugees is almost twice that of locals despite their having slightly higher levels of education.
The new Constitution guarantees all workers the equal protection of labor laws and social security. Registered refugees may operate business enterprises but asylum seekers may not. Although they have the legal right to open bank accounts or cash checks, in practice, even recognized refugees and asylum seekers often cannot because banks required Ecuadorian identity cards, for which refugee visa holders are not eligible. This can also bar formal employment as many employers require employees to have bank accounts to receive their pay through direct deposit. Refugees have the right to own property except that no foreigner may own land within 50 km of the border.
Public Relief and Education
Legally, recognized refugees and asylum seekers have access to public health services equal to that of national, including mental health services, emergency dental services, and free basic maternity aid and the health ministry reaffirmed this in a 2004 Ministerial Agreement.
In September, Ministerial Agreement No. 337 removed a requirement that foreign students present visas or documentation of their immigration status when applying to enroll in public institutions allowing presentation of any identity document instead. The Agreement also allows them placement through an exam to the same grade level as nationals, if they lack certification of studies from their countries of origin. Nevertheless, schools often make refugee children pay extra fees or deny them admittance because they lack documentation available only in their home countries. Sometimes children can study but schools refuse to issue them certificates and diplomas because of their lack of documentation of previous studies.
Since 2006, development plans in Sucumbíos have taken refugees and asylum seekers into account at least formally but the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion's programs for groups with special needs are available only to nationals.
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