By Liam Higgins
A week ago, Ecuador immigration officials reported that 5,000 Venezuelans a day were legally entering the country. On Tuesday, the number had dropped below 1,000. The encampments of thousands of refugees at the Rumichaca International Bridge on the Colombian border are mostly gone, with officials estimating that less than 100 were camped out there on Wednesday.
So where are the masses of Venezuelans escaping poverty and instability back home?
“The passport requirement changed everything,” says immigration officer José González, who processes foreigners at the Rumichaca border crossing. “When they (the Venezuelans) heard about it, many of them made different plans. Some are crossing without going through immigration, but that’s only 100 or 200 a day. Others are going to smaller stations and crossing there legally or illegally, and some have decided to cross the border into Peru or Brazil,” he says.
For the first time, González says, he is seeing a significant number of Venezuelans going home. “One lady with her children told me she is tired of riding dirty buses and walking and wants to go back home where her parents are.”
National police reported seeing a number of groups of Venezuelans walking north in Imbabura Province on Tuesday and Wednesday, headed back to Colombia and Venezuela.
Authorities say that most recent arrivals continue to head south for Peru, hoping to get there before Saturday, when Peru, like Ecuador, begins requiring a a passport for entry into the country.
Ecuador’s interior ministry says it is too early to provide estimates of how many Venezuelans are crossing the border illegally and how many have decided to cross in Peru or Brazil. “Obviously, there is a major change in the migration pattern but we don’t fully understand it yet,” says Diego Tipán, deputy interior minister.
One thing he is sure of is that far fewer refugees are entering Ecuador today than at this time last week. “We were overwhelmed and now we are catching our breath,” he says.
On Friday, Tipán goes to court in Quito to defend the ministry’s order that Venezuelans present passports to enter Ecuador. The order is being challenged by the government’s ombudsman who claims it violates the cvountry’s constitution.