Once a ‘net exporter’ of its citizens to other countries, Ecuador is now a net ‘importer’

Dec 27, 2018

Although immigrants present short-term challenges for Ecuador, experts say they will eventually provide a boost to the country.

By Liam Higgins

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, an estimated two-and-a-half million Ecuadorians left the country. Most headed for the U.S. with a third of them settling in Canada, Spain, Italy and France.

“It was a period of great hardship for many in this country,” says Juan Lozano, sociology professor at the University of Guayaquil. “They wanted better lives and more opportunity for their children and to do this they saw no alternative but to leave home.” He adds that southern Ecuador, including the cities of Cuenca, Loja and Machala, saw the highest rate of out-migration. “For a period of time, these cities actually saw a reduction in population.”

Recently arrived Venezuelan children in Cuenca.

Things are different today, Lozano says. The majority of those who left the country have returned and, in addition, hundreds of thousands of migrants from other countries have arrived. Ecuador’s foreign ministry estimates that about 500,000 foreigners have settled in Ecuador since 2010 and more are expected. That number includes the current influx of Venezuelan refugees which the ministry estimates at about 250,000, most of them arriving since the beginning of 2017.

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“Despite having problems of its own, Ecuador is a land of opportunity for Colombians, Venezuelans, Cuban and Haitians escaping poverty and violence,” says Lozano. “Our murder and violent crime rate is a fraction of that in those other countries and many of those coming in are able to find employment.”

In addition to those escaping bad conditions back home, Ecuador has also become a magnet for what Lozano calles “voluntary” or “retiree” immigrants. “As many as 50,000 people from North America and Europe have moved to Ecuador since about 2008,” he says. “The country ranks in the top five in the world for voluntary in-migration, and because of political and crime problems in other countries, like Mexico and Colombia, I expect the number to continue to grow.”

According to the foreign ministry, migrants tend to settle in larger cities, with Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil and Santo Domingo being the most attractive landing spots. “There is more opportunity in these cities and better chance of blending in than in smaller communities and rural areas,” says ministry spokesman Gustavo Miller.

Although the arrival of thousands of foreigners, many of them poor, puts short-term strains on the country’s social services, immigration experts believe that the newcomers will eventually prove to be a benefit to the country.

“In general, the refugees are more motivated to make a better life for themselves than those they leave behind,” says Michel Levi, professor at the Simón Bolívar Andean University. “In the case of the Venezuelans, many of them are professionals, doctors, lawyers, accountants and business owners, who will help Ecuador build what we call human capital. Cities like Cuenca and Quito, in particular, are already benefiting from these professionals.”

Levi adds that history has proven that in-migration is a boost to the culture and economy of countries. “The best example, of course, is the U.S., which continues to benefit from the talents of immigrants. I think we will see the same effect in Ecuador.”

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