By Stephanie Leutert
“Believe me, diplomatic relations have no effect on refugee policies,” assures the Director of Ecuador’s Ministry of Exterior Relations’ Refugee Department.
Yet despite his confidence that Ecuador’s treatment of its refugee population remains independent of its diplomatic ties with Colombia, the Ecuadorian government’s rhetoric and policy suggest otherwise. For 50 years, Colombia has been wracked by violence from disparate factions, including government security forces and narco-traffickers. According to research by a Colombian human rights organization, the conflict has displaced roughly 5 million people, and an estimated 1,500 refugees continue to flow into Ecuador every month. As relations between the two countries have improved over the past year, Colombian refugees in Ecuador have become convenient political scapegoats.
According to the UNHCR, Ecuador is home to an estimated 130,000 Colombians in need of international protection, including 53,000 documented refugees. In Ecuador, any individual with refugee documents or currently soliciting refugee status is allowed access to the country’s social services, but anyone undocumented or denied official refugee status must either leave the country or join a growing and invisible population.
Over the past four years, Ecuador has pursued a progressive refugee policy, highlighted by such internationally commended programs as its 2009-2010 Enhanced Registration initiative. This project documented roughly 30,000 Colombian refugees living in the Ecuadorian border regions. However, in early 2011, Ecuador’s immigration policies began to change. Government officials implemented more restrictions in the application for official refugee status, such as a preliminary interview. Several factors are behind this shift, including fluctuating relations between the nations and many Ecuadorians’ perception that all the Colombians bring to their country is crime.
On March 1, 2008, Colombian security forces crossed into Ecuadorian territory to destroy a FARC camp. Incensed by the blatant violation of its sovereignty, Ecuadorian officials severed diplomatic ties between the countries, which were not reestablished until November 2010.
The incident forced Ecuador to examine its relationship with its northern neighbor, and not surprisingly, Colombian refugees rose to the top of Ecuador’s national agenda. Financial support for refugees was one of the five conditions that Ecuador demanded during negotiations over the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
With diplomatic relations restored, Colombian President Juan Santos initiated programs for refugees to return. This unprecedented change in policy makes it diplomatically beneficial for Ecuador to downplay its refugee population, and instead highlight the Colombian government’s incentives for refugees to return to their homes, thereby avoiding tensions.
In early 2011, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s government altered its rhetoric on the refugees. In response to the tightening of eligibility requirements, President Correa explained: “Before, the process was very lax … Sometimes, delinquents asked for refuge and were granted refugee status. This is ending.” The change in rhetoric links stricter restrictions for refugees with reducing crime, and is further evidence of the shift in perceptions. In the past, Colombian refugees were portrayed as victims of a humanitarian crisis. Now they are seen as a national security concern.
In the past decade, crime rates have risen steadily throughout Ecuador. A recent study by the Barometro de las Americas says that 29 percent of the 3,000 Ecuadorians surveyed reported being a victim of crime in the 12 months prior the survey.
While the underlying reasons for the rise in crime are complex and numerous, official discourse blames Colombians. “This is a strategy,” explains one official working for an international non-profit in Quito, who asked not to be named. “It puts Ecuador’s crime problem onto a third party, and it is much easier to tell your citizenry that you are denying criminals refugee status, than the truth—that you are turning away true refugees.”
In September 2011, the Ecuadorian daily newspaper Hoy quoted President Correa as saying: “If the Colombian delinquents continue coming here, kidnapping people…and the Colombian state cannot intervene, then with deep sorrow, we will put restrictions on the Colombians.” While it cannot be disputed that some Colombians have been convicted of crimes in Ecuador, such blanket statements have had a profoundly negative impact on perceptions and discrimination toward the majority of innocent Colombian refugees.
This perception is reflected in a recent national survey conducted by Beatriz Zepeda and Luis Verdesoto from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Las Ciencias Sociales. Approximately 64 percent of the Ecuadorians surveyed answered that their opinion about Colombians living in Ecuador was bad or very bad. Colombians as a group elicited the most negative response from the Ecuadorians surveyed, beating out Peruvians, Cubans, Chinese, Americans, and Europeans.
In order to confront this dangerous scapegoating, the Ecuadorian government must ensure that fair treatment of the refugee population remains a top priority in its humanitarian efforts. Regardless of its diplomatic relations with Colombia, Ecuador has a moral obligation to distinguish Colombian refugees as victims—not as criminals—and to reflect this sentiment in its policies.
Stephanie Leutert conducted independent fieldwork on Colombian refugees in Ecuador from September to November 2011 on a grant from the Rotary Club.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sara y Tzunky]