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Flood of Venezuelans makes life more difficult for Ecuador’s Colombian refugees

By Jeffrey D. Pugh, Luis F. Jiménez, and Bettina Latuff

As a result of its decades-long international conflict, Colombia produced more than seven million displaced persons, a large portion of whom turned south, making Ecuador the largest recipient of refugees and asylum seekers in Latin America. During two decades of experience as a major host country, Ecuador developed a reputation for progressive legal protections.

Life for Colombian migrants in Ecuador has become more difficult in recent years, however, as the result of several factors: the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, an armed group involved in the country’s internal conflict); government change in Ecuador and Colombia; and the large influx of Venezuelans fleeing humanitarian catastrophe.

Colombian migrants report high levels of discrimination, and nearly two out of five had been victims of a crime within the past year, according to a survey carried out by the authors in July 2019 in Quito, Ecuador. They also reported little trust in Ecuadorian institutions, were reluctant to participate in civil society, and tried to keep a low profile to avoid being targets of scorn. However, most expect to be living in Ecuador in the foreseeable future, as they doubt the peace deal will improve the security situation in Colombia.

Venezuelan newcomers, on the other hand, are increasingly visible: as of September 2019, 370,000 lived in Ecuador. While they also reported some discrimination, they held Ecuadorian institutions in higher regard and had greater hope for leaving the country in the future.

Ecuador’s Reputation as a Migration Haven Is Tested

Tens-of-thousands of Colombian refugees have been granted asylum in Ecuador. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 live in Cuenca.

After an economic crisis in 2000, Ecuador transitioned from being primarily a major producer of emigrants to simultaneously become the largest recipient of refugees in Latin America: 97 percent of refugees in Ecuador during the past 20 years were Colombian. Also during this period, the country witnessed the foreign-born share of its population double from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 2.4 percent of the total population of 16.2 million in 2015, according to World Bank data.

Ecuador has relatively liberal laws, constitutional protections, and formal institutions for migrants and refugees, but these have been implemented unevenly in practice. The 2008 constitution prohibits discrimination based on nationality or migratory status and declares that “no human being is illegal.” In 2009-10, Ecuador won international recognition because of its innovative mobile refugee registration initiative “Enhanced Registration,” which was funded and implemented together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and in one year doubled the number of registered refugees in the country. As of October 2019, the country hosted more than 68,000 refugees—still overwhelmingly Colombian. However, in 2018 and 2019, Venezuelans represented more than double the number of Colombians applying for asylum. In recent years, Ecuador has hardened its requirements to grant refugee status in the face of political backlash and fears of lax standards in refugee-status determination. Figure 1 shows the number of asylum seekers and recognized refugees, as well as acceptance rates (i.e. the percentage of those claiming asylum who are actually granted refugee status) in Ecuador.

After 2011, the Ecuadorian government dramatically reduced refugee acceptance (which remained less than 5 percent between 2014 and 2017), preferring to encourage Mercosur (a South American trade bloc) visas or other non-refugee visas. Even as it has de-emphasized refugee protections, the country has taken some steps that benefit other types of migrants, and the acceptance rate has increased again over the past two years. In 2017, a human mobility law under negotiation for more than ten years finally passed, clarifying and codifying a number of protections. The government also agreed to provide legal representation through the public defender’s office for asylum seekers requesting assistance in the status-determination process, a service previously available only through private attorneys and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

But other challenges have threatened the country’s warm (albeit uneven) welcome of migrants and refugees. Since the signing of the Colombian peace agreement in 2016, the Ecuadorian border has become more insecure, as an informal understanding between FARC and the Ecuadorian military to avoid each other as long as FARC was not engaged in violence dissolved, leaving a power vacuum and a multiplicity of smaller criminal groups that saw advantage in using violence. According to the Ecuadorian military brigade in Tulcán, the number of illicit actors has increased, creating a more complex security situation that can often result in the stigmatization of all Colombians.

The kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorian journalists and the kidnapping of an Ecuadorian couple by an ex-FARC splinter cell of Colombian guerrillas in 2018 resulted in the declaration of a national emergency and escalated rhetoric about a security crisis at the Ecuadorian-Colombian border. When a Venezuelan man stabbed and killed his pregnant Ecuadorian girlfriend in Ibarra in January 2019, the high-profile crime was swiftly followed by anti-immigrant protests and attacks on Venezuelans. The unease was further fueled by a tweet by President Lenín Moreno implying that Venezuelans were to blame for insecurity. In this context, many migrants have reported experiencing discrimination, and Colombians say they feel that their plight has become invisible as the Venezuelan migration influx has dominated the headlines.

Despite Peace Agreement, Displaced Colombians Are Unable to Return

Colombia’s half-century internal conflict—the longest in the hemisphere—produced the largest number of refugees in the Americas and the most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, according to UNHCR. Violence escalated in 2000 as a result of Plan Colombia, a U.S. military aid program that increased Colombia’s fighting capacity and pushed armed confrontations into rural areas near the border that had previously been de facto guerrilla territory. As a result, the number of displaced Colombians seeking refuge in Ecuador skyrocketed. In December 2016, after years of negotiations, the Colombian government and FARC reached a peace agreement. Initially rejected in a tight plebiscite—despite strong support from displaced Colombians outside of the country and those in areas that had felt the brunt of the conflict—it was later ratified in modified form by Congress.

As the peace process proceeded, the Ecuadorian government and international organizations began decreasing assistance in anticipation of voluntary returns. Nonetheless, three years after the agreement, security has not improved enough for Colombians to contemplate returning. While the FARC has demobilized and largely taken the process seriously, remnant groups continue to carry out violence on a regular basis: hundreds of social leaders and human-rights defenders, especially those of indigenous and African descent, have been murdered since the peace agreement. The number of such murders doubled between 2017 and 2018, according to Fundación Ideas para la Paz.

This continued instability has spilled over the border, with Colombians in Ecuador experiencing threats from smaller armed groups and organized criminals with a presence on both sides of the border. Therefore, they remain fearful of returning home even as levels of international support have waned.

Experiences of Colombian Refugees in Ecuador

Colombians in Ecuador live in a complex and often vulnerable context. Most have fled threats in their home country, and may have lost family members, farms, or businesses. They can face discrimination from Ecuadorians, who associate them with the conflict. There is not always a clear understanding of the difference between refugees and other kinds of migrants; according to one NGO leader, for some Ecuadorians “refugees are just immigrants with sadder stories.”

Social Barriers

Ecuador strives to provide foreigners with the same rights as Ecuadorians. Refugees may work without additional authorization, and Ecuador guarantees all migrants access to education, social services, and some documentation (such as drivers licenses and birth registration). Nevertheless, discrimination is a key problem: Colombians face social barriers to finding employment and housing, and enrolling their children in schools. While 36 percent of the more than 32,000 foreign students in Ecuadorian primary schools in 2017 were Colombian, a lack of proper documents or financial resources makes accessing certain educational programs, such as extracurricular activities, difficult. As many as 40 percent of high-school age Colombian refugees in Quito may be excluded from school because of documentation barriers. Such obstacles also make obtaining work outside of the informal sector challenging.

Of the Colombians surveyed, 62 percent said they had experienced discrimination since coming to Ecuador (compared to 48 percent of Venezuelans). This number has decreased from 83 percent in 2013. About two out of every five Colombian respondents surveyed in 2019 said they had been the victim of a crime within the past 12 months (compared to one-fifth of Venezuelans).

At the same time, many Colombian migrants in Ecuador do not trust state authorities to help them when in need. Two-thirds of those surveyed in 2019 said they would not trust the judiciary at all or only a little if they were the victim of a violent crime, and 40 percent reported that they did not trust the police “at all” (compared to 21 percent of Venezuelans). Of those who said in the 2013 survey that they were victimized by an Ecuadorian aggressor, 42 percent said they “did nothing” rather than reporting to the police (and only 34 percent went to the police). In 2009, 55 percent reported doing nothing. This effect is also racialized: Afro-Colombian migrants in Quito are much more likely to report doing nothing after being victimized than mestizo migrants.

Colombians often use invisibility as a survival strategy. Their accent can identify them in public spaces, and can make them targets of discrimination—the biggest “marker of difference,” besides being Colombian, according to survey respondents. Although many Colombian migrant associations organized during the first half of President Rafael Correa’s administration (2007-11) were influential in reforming the Ecuadorian constitution’s migration provisions, these organizations have since weakened and become less visible. Many Colombians prefer to stay out of politics in order to integrate into Ecuadorian society and avoid standing out. When asked if they would participate in a public information campaign or contact the media, most Colombian survey respondents in 2019 said they would never do so. When groups of Colombian protesters set up camps in front of the UNHCR office in Quito in 2015 and 2019 demanding attention to their cases or requesting resettlement to a third country, their success was limited and the media coverage was mostly unfavorable. In short, Colombians in Ecuador often try to keep a low profile, and when they do not, more contentious forms of activism are ineffective.

Local integration has been the “durable solution” proposed by UNHCR during the past two decades, given the protracted conflict in Colombia that made return infeasible and the scarcity of third countries willing to accept refugees for resettlement. The 2016 peace agreement raised some hopes that voluntary return might become a realistic option. However, the peace agreement’s uneven implementation has frustrated these hopes.

Views of the Peace Process and (Changing) Expectations

The Colombian peace process was widely hailed as innovative for its inclusion of victims’ voices. Even while 54 percent of Colombians abroad supported the peace deal in the 2016 plebiscite, some thought it was too soft on FARC. Others described it as a positive step, but were more worried about how (and whether) it would be implemented with sufficient security guarantees, especially when the National Liberation Army (ELN, another armed group) was not demobilizing. Since the agreement was signed, little has changed in the lives of displaced Colombians abroad.

An organization leader who has worked closely with the Colombian migrant community shared that many of the Colombians in Ecuador feel disillusioned with the peace process:

“Outside of Colombia, there is a big sense of frustration towards the peace agreement. The people feel disappointed and frustrated fundamentally with regards to its implementation or lack of implementation. They had hope in being able to return to Colombia…Colombia’s problems are much more complex than those of Venezuela, with much more history. They cannot be fixed within a two-year peace process, and under [Colombian President] Duque, Colombia is heading backwards, and the situation has become even more complicated.”

When asked in 2013 where they imagined they would be living in five years, just 8 percent of Colombians surveyed thought they would return to Colombia. Sixty percent anticipated they would still be in Ecuador, while 30 percent thought they would be living in a third country. In 2019, these numbers have shifted only slightly. Fourteen percent of Colombians surveyed imagined they will have returned to Colombia within five years, 36 percent believed they will still be in Ecuador, and 40 percent thought they will be in a third country.

Despite the slight increase in hope of returning to Colombia, the shift from those who believe they will stay in Ecuador to those who imagine they will live somewhere else suggests a bleaker view of the future in Ecuador compared to past survey results.

Comparisons of Migrant Experiences

Several differences emerge when comparing Colombian and Venezuelan migrants’ experiences. Colombians seem to have less trust in migrant assistance organizations, including both state and nonstate institutions. For example, 29 percent of Colombian migrants interviewed stated that they had no trust in UNHCR, compared to 12 percent of Venezuelans. Colombian distrust in UNHCR has increased over time, from less than 15 percent in 2009 to more than 30 percent in 2019. Similar numbers of Colombians indicated a complete lack of trust in the Ecuadorian Refugee Office, the human-rights ombudsman, and migration organizations in general in Ecuador (around 30 percent, 31 percent, and 36 percent, respectively); whereas a much smaller number of Venezuelans felt the same lack of distrust towards these organizations (16 percent, 11 percent, and 13 percent, respectively).

In interviews with leaders of various Venezuelan-led organizations, they perceived relationships with these institutions as important in addressing the needs of the Venezuelan migrant population. Leaders of one organization said religious groups such as Servicio Jesuita and the Catholic Church are important allies. Likewise, 43 percent of Venezuelan migrants reported “a lot” of trust in the church. In contrast, only around 10 percent of Colombian migrants shared the same attitude.

On the other hand, an important similarity between both groups is a consensus to remain outside of politics—about 60 percent of both groups expressed no political interest. Moreover, around 92 percent of Colombians and 98 percent of Venezuelans said that they had not participated in a local government open meeting. More than 71 percent of both groups expressed that they would never participate in a local organization, and a miniscule number had participated in a political party meeting whilst living in Ecuador.

One Venezuelan leader interviewed stressed the importance of survival over political participation or activism for most migrants when they decide to come to Ecuador. As a result of restrictions by the state on public political engagement by non-Ecuadorian nationals, some Venezuelan organizations have not encouraged activism or political mobilization. However, another representative said:

“We have established our own media networks and have managed to appear on news channels and television discussion shows to say to people who we are. It is the best way to say who we are and make visible the Venezuelan issue. I have only seen two Colombian representatives on TV in my time living in Ecuador. The norm is that an immigrant remains silent, but Venezuelans, being Caribbean, are more open and prefer to gain trust in being visible.”

A press conference organized by various Venezuelan organizations after the xenophobic attacks in Ibarra in January 2019, for example, allowed community leaders to speak with one voice in rejecting the scapegoating and violence.

One Venezuelan organization leader said that many migrants remain very attached to Venezuela, and do not come with the same focus as other migrants on integrating and establishing a new life in Ecuador. Another community representative mentioned that most Venezuelan migrants would like to return to their country, and that they have hope that a tangible path for reconstruction will take place with a possible change of regime. Despite nearly 93 percent of Venezuelans expressing a negative opinion of their country’s government, there is a genuine hope that the situation will improve enough for their migration to be temporary. In contrast, when Colombian migrants were asked where they would like to live in five years, 45 percent answered another country that was neither Colombia nor Ecuador. This shows both a lack of hope that the conditions in Colombia will soon improve, and a desire for a better living situation than they have in Ecuador.

Evolving Political Discourse on Migration

Despite Ecuador’s welcoming constitutional provisions and laws on human mobility, the state has gradually reduced the strength and consistency of implementing refugee protections, while increasingly treating immigration as a security concern. This trend and its related security discourse began under Moreno’s predecessor, Correa, especially with his Presidential Decree 1182 that made it more difficult to apply for asylum.

Furthermore, the words “refugee” and “UNHCR” have appeared with less frequency over time in the Ecuadorian news media since 2012, while “human mobility” has appeared more frequently, according to an analysis of more than 800 newspaper articles in the Ecuadorian media by one of the authors. The plight of Colombians has become less visible compared to the hyper-visible influx of Venezuelans, which has disadvantaged both populations, while the “immigration as security” discourse has escalated under Moreno.

Moreno has proposed various restrictions involving passport, visa, or police record requirements for Venezuelans to legally enter the country or apply for visas. Given the fact that it is next to impossible for most Venezuelans to obtain these documents from a dysfunctional regime, these restrictions (some of which have been successfully challenged or reversed in court) amount to targeted exclusion of Venezuelan forced migrants. The July 2019 Decree 826 demanded all these documents, plus a US $0 fee for a “temporary exceptional humanitarian residence visa” that can only be applied for in third countries. (The visa requirement went into effect in August 2019.) The head of migration in Colombia’s foreign ministry, Christian Krüger Sarmiento, argued that these requirements by Ecuador will not decrease migration, but only increase insecurity by driving desperate migrants toward informal crossings, increasing opportunities for extortion by the criminal groups that control these routes.

More Patience and Political Will Needed to Achieve Integration

As their mass displacement continues, Venezuelans are following in the footsteps of an older, more complex, and now less visible Colombian exodus. Colombians retain a limbo status in Ecuador, with the attention of the world focused on Venezuelan newcomers even as the promised safe return to Colombia in the wake of the peace agreement remains out of reach. Political will and patience on the part of neighboring countries such as Ecuador must be matched with a continued commitment by Colombia to fully embrace the implementation of the peace agreement in order to achieve peace both in Colombia and across its borders.

In the meantime, Colombians will continue to do their best to integrate locally in Ecuador, as will increasing numbers of Venezuelans. Street salespeople, domestic and construction workers, and others occupying the informal economy represent the starting rung for the economic integration of these groups, even while political participation remains a largely closed arena for migrants. While Ecuador has extended a welcome mat for foreigners in the past, Colombians and Venezuelans are finding that it is increasingly threadbare.
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This article was prepared using funding from the University of Massachusetts Boston John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies DOFFFER grant, and from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.