By Liam Higgins
Despite its diminutive size, Ecuador hosts the largest number of refugees of any country in Latin America. In fact, it hosts more than all other Latin American countries combined.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 62,000 refugees in Ecuador, more than 90 percent of them from Colombia, forced to flee because of that country’s 30-year civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas.
The majority of Colombian refugees have been in Ecuador for 10 years or more and consider themselves permanent residents. There are an estimated 15,000 in Quito, 10,000 in Guayaquil and 3,000 in Cuenca.
Today, Ecuador faces a massive influx of Venezuelans fleeing that country’s collapsing economy. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot yet estimate how many of them will stay and how many will eventually be counted as refugees. According to the ministry’s undersecretary for International Protection and Assistance to Migrants, Alfonso Morales, most Venezuelans are passing through, on their way to Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
“In 2017, almost 300,000 Venezuelan citizens entered Ecuador through Colombia but most of them left at the southern border with Peru,” Morales says. “Today, we estimate that 70,000 to 80,000 are in the country but this is only an educated guess. We have no idea how many will want to settle here and, in fact, we don’t know how many more are coming,” he says.
It is also unclear how many Venezuelans will be accepted as refugees if they decide to stay, Morales says. “According to the UNHCR definition, a refugee is someone who has a legitimate fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership particular social groups. The definition does not yet include those who leave their country for economic reasons so we have to figure this out.” He adds that his office is just beginning to process more than 20,000 refugee applications from Venezuelans.
Whether the Venezuelans are accepted as official refugees makes a difference. “Those classified as refugees receive special help from the government,” Morales says. “This involves educational, occupational and financial assistance, some of it provided from the UN.”
Like the Colombian refugees, Morales believes Venezuelans that stay will concentrate near the northern border and in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.
Only when the large-scale out-migration from Venezuela ends will the Ecuadorian government have a clear view of what is required to handle the new residents, whether they are considered refugees or not. “Things are dynamic at the moment and will continue to be in the foreseeable future,” says. “We will have to wait to see how this plays out.”
Morales is fairly certain about one thing. “Once we have a clearer picture, I believe Ecuador will still have more refugees than any other country in the region.”