Ecuador: Chronicles of hospitality in Latin America

14 October 2013

Esmeraldas, Ecuador, town that borders Colombia on the Pacific coast.
After fleeing armed conflict, Colombian refugees often seek refuge in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, a town that borders Colombia on the Pacific coast. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Quito – When Ecuador promulgated a new constitution in October 2008, the world celebrated. Among the many accomplishments was the presence of paragraph 6 of article 416, in support of universal citizenship and freedom of movement throughout the world. Yet little more than five years later, gaining respect for the fine principles upon which it was based has proved more elusive than the initial celebrations led observers to believe.

The provisions of the new constitution transcended the traditional legal-political framework of the modern nation-state, pointing to a cosmopolitan ideal, deeply rooted in Christian, Kantian and humanist traditions. Universal citizenship”, “freedom of movement”, “recognition of the right to migrate”, and “progressive end to foreign status”, were represented among other adopted concepts in this new paradigm of migration.

The constitution highlighted the necessity of a new legal order in the region, in which human rights protection took precedence over border control, political sovereignty, national security and other restrictions of the modern nation state.

Starting on Friday 20 June 2008, visa requirements for foreign citizens remaining in the country for less than 90 days were abolished. Correa argued that, with this provision, Ecuador was “dismantling that invention of the 20th century that were the passports and visas”. A new paradigm of Latin American and Caribbean integration seemed around the corner!

Tightening migration and asylum policy

The increase in immigration to Ecuador had already begun before the 2008 adoption of the policy of “open borders” or “universal citizenship”. For instance, the National Directorate of Migration recognised that net migration of Colombians and Peruvians totalled 706,339 between 2000 and 2006, in comparison with 65,147 foreigner nationals residing in Ecuador in 2001.

However, events soon began to change for the worse. Starting in 2008, Haitians, Cubans and even non-American migrants began arriving in significant numbers. Against this backdrop, the Ecuadorian government re-imposed entrance visas for certain nationals: first on the Chinese in December of 2009; later, on Afghanis, Bangladeshi, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Nepali, Nigerians, Pakistani and Somali in September of 2010.

Despite the generous policy adopted in the past to refugees – Ecuador hosts more refugees than any other countries in the region – the progressive tightening of migration policy was replicated for those seeking asylum.

While the 1992 decree no. 3301, in line with the Cartagena Declaration, granted protection to those fleeing threats to their lives, insecurity due to generalised violence, and massive human rights violations, the 2012 decree limited the granting of protection to those fleeing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. In other words, the 2012 decree is far more restrictive and does not reflect the reality on the ground.

The grounds for protection, as set out in the Cartagena Declaration, “is a landmark in the tradition of human rights in Latin America”. It provides protection to people who flee armed conflicts and other situations which are outside the remit of other traditional international human rights instruments, such as the 1951 UN refugee convention. Moreover, this declaration “is necessary to ensure protection of thousands of refugees fleeing armed conflict and generalised violence, as is the case for a large proportion in Colombia”.

Human rights organisations almost unanimously agree that the restriction of the refugee definition will deny protection to a great number of Colombians seeking asylum in Ecuador; additionally, a great number of refugees will become undocumented migrants. The tightening of migration and asylum policy demonstrate a certain decline in hospitality shown by Ecuador, as well as with respect to the principles proclaimed by the Ecuadorian constitution of 2008.