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Humanitarian crisis

Refugees in Ecuador

by Linda Helfrich
When people talk about a humanitarian crisis, we generally think of refugees migrating in Africa, the Balkans, or southern Europe. Rarely do we think about countries like Ecuador. Nonetheless, the Andes nation has allegedly absorbed up to 300,000 refugees from neighbouring Colombia over the past ten years. They are on the run from guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug lords – and sometimes simply looking for a better life. [ By Linda Helfrich ]

From 2000 to 2008, 62,000 people applied for asylum. Despite the country’s initially liberal asylum policy and the approximately 18,000 visas issued, a large number of Colombian refugees have no formal residency permit for Ecuador; they are in the country illegally. Some of them cannot return home.

In June 2008, Ecuador began allowing Colombians to enter without a visa, but immigration was made stricter for Colombians again in December, when a criminal record was required.

On the search for a new life and unaware of their rights, refugees cross borders illegally. They do not live in camps, but rather stay with relatives or just get by somehow. Many of them fear deportation if they apply for asylum. Others cannot afford to travel to the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the central application points for refugees in Quito, Cuenca and Lago Agrio.

Nonetheless, Ecuador’s migration legislation is exemplary. The national refugee policy is based on the international convention on refugees. Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to ratify the Estatuto de los Refugiados of 1951 and work on the basis of the Cartagena Declaration of 1984. The latter stipulates that armed conflict, gross violations of human rights, persecution based on gender and negligence of social rights are all reasons to grant asylum. State officials applied the guidelines generously, but because normal visa applications could not be processed quickly enough, applicants had to wait for months.

New recognition policy

Since April 2009, the northern provinces have therefore been pursuing a new policy. Now, the process, called registros ampliados, only takes a day, and each individual case is no longer reviewed. The number of documents refugees have to produce is lower, and they do not have to present their criminal record. To cover people who cannot travel afar, the authorities also visit villages. Since April 2009, 5,500 Colombians have received refugee status with the assistance of the UNHCR.

This practice remains unique in Latin America. By recognizing conflicts in the refugees’ country of origin, Ecuador can bestow the status of refugees on entire groups. These people then have the same right to education and health as Ecuadorians. The UNHCR gives them rice, sugar, sardines, and lentils. Detergents, mattresses, cooking gas, cooking pots and plates are part of the basic package.

Nonetheless, Ecuador is poorly prepared for the number of applicants. The international community of nations is slow to react, and the rise in crime is fostering resentments against Colombians. Occasionally, police brutality occurs, innocent people are arrested, etc. The northern provinces of Esmeraldas, Carchi, Imbabura, Sucumbíos, and Orellana lack the infrastructure to absorb these people. Indeed, they sometimes do not even have sufficient basic items for their own people, such as drinking water, electricity and schools. In border regions, drug trade becomes an especially lucrative option.

Some refugees are petty criminals themselves, if not guerrilla fighters or members of the drug mafia.

Important transit country

There are few drug crops in Ecuador itself. But because the country is situated between Colombia and Peru, the world’s two largest coca producers, it is considered an important transit country on the cocaine route towards southern Latin America. The 640-kilometer border between Ecuador and Colombia is permeable; a third of Colombian cocaine is estimated to pass through Ecuador. From the country’s ports, it is sent out around the world.

Just across the border are Colombia’s main plantation regions. Despite tremendous air raids in such regions as part of Plan Colombia, which aims to destroy the drug market and combat rebels, the two states of Nariño and Putumayo nonetheless produced more than half of Colombia’s coca over the past few years. In Tumaco and Puerto Asís in particular, numerous new drug trade organisations have added a wide range of illegal and semi-legal activities to their sales of ”white gold“, including prohibited bank transactions, taxi firms, and the smuggling of weapons.

The economic and social problems are great on both sides of the border. There is a lack of formal jobs and schools, and health care is inadequate. Day labourers from Ecuador work in coca production in Colombia. Colombian farmers have relatives south of the border. Indeed, Ecuador almost spends more time combating the problems associated with coca plantations and cocaine trading in Colombia than it does with its own domestic problems. Some Colombian drug farmers and traders have moved to Ecuador from regions contaminated with herbicides. Paramilitary groups, guerillas and drug warlords repeatedly hide from Colombian authorities and the military by moving to Ecuador.

Repressive war on drugs

To stop drug plantations and combat guerrillas, the U.S. and Colombia launched Plan Colombia in 1999, which mainly consists in a repressive war on drugs and law enforcement. In October 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed the Plan and drew some sobering conclusions. It found that the goal of cutting the production of cocaine in half from 2000 to 2006 had failed miserably, though the overall security situation in Colombia had improved.

A growing number of Colombian civil society organisations also charge that aerial fumigation is not working. Once a leader of the guerrilla organisation M19, Antonio Navarro later became mayor of the provincial capital of Pasto and is now governor of the state of Nariño, where he has come up with a regional development plan entitled Adelante Nariño. Nariño used to be a peaceful area, but drug plantations and the war on drugs have had devastating consequences. In the coastal town of Tumaco, where most of the population is Afro-Colombian, crime rates have skyrocketed: the town now averages 151 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The national average is 36.

Upon taking office, Navarro began negotiating with the Uribe administration to temporarily discontinue aerial fumigation in favor of manual eradication. His development plan aims to change the situation in southern Colombia from 2008 to 2012. The regional government will then show whether it can get a grip on development problems in southern Colombia.

Back in April 2007, Ecuador came up with its own Plan Ecuador, a package of preventive development measures with which to tackle problems particularly in the northern region. In addition to the 135 million dollars originally set aside by Rafael Correa, aid from international financing partners was to bring the total up to 270 million dollars. But the funding was hard to come by. Canada and South Korea were interested in the long-term, twelve-year plan, but overall, the international community has been reluctant to become involved.

Working towards a culture of peace

With this plan, the government aims to compensate for the negative effects of the Colombian conflict and the war on drugs. Ecuador’s federal government wants to make itself felt more in ten regions; governmental social services are to be improved in the border region for both Ecuadorians and Colombians. People in these areas live off of less than a dollar a day.

Another goal is the structural strengthening of the state to provide greater security, more jobs, better infrastructure and improved environmental protection. One result is to be a “culture of peace”. The Ministry of Justice wants to improve access to justice by offering alternative ways of settling disputes (peace judges) and improving out-of-court settlement procedures. The government is willing to provide loans to small companies, which will also be available to refugee and human rights organisations in the region. The state is pursuing the ambitious goal of preventing the refugee and drug problem from coming about at all in order to increase security.

Nonetheless, criticism of the Correa administration and Plan Ecuador is growing. There are charges that the population at large is not benefiting enough and talk of corruption and a lack of transparency. The critics include labour unions, indígenas and environmental organisations – all of which used to be supporters of Correa.

Reelected in April 2009, the government now has time to get control of the humanitarian crisis, reduce violence, and rein in organised crime. If it succeeds, Plan Ecuador and the desarrollo alternativo preventivo could set an example for all of Latin America. But a government failure would be grist for the mill of those who want to see law enforcement as the centerpiece of the war on drugs and crime.