Refugees in Ecuador: Organizing for Human Rights

If getting chased out of Colombia at gunpoint wasn’t bad enough, 94 percent of the quarter-million Colombian refugees in Ecuador are undocumented. They have no right to work, no right to report abuses and no right to stay. But they’re not silently accepting this fate as “refugees without refuge”. By organizing and joining in the Latin American movement of movements, refugees are demanding their right to have rights. This is the final article in a three-part series on asylum in Ecuador. The series deals with Ecuador’s response to the refugee crisis created by the ongoing conflict in Colombia, the daily challenges of surviving as a refugee in Ecuador, and how refugees are organizing themselves to demand their human rights.

“So who’s coming to karaoke?” said Michel. It was 9:30pm, and on most weeks I gave my introductory English class to a handful of Colombian refugees—parents, children and sometimes even grandchildren sitting side by side and hoping to someday use these words in Canada—then stuck around for the meeting of the Association of Colombian Refugees in Ecuador (ARCOE in its Spanish abbreviation) and was on a homeward bus shortly thereafter.

But tonight was Michel’s birthday party. There was soda, some boxed wine and a couple cupcakes with candles stuck in them. And after we sang the obligatory songs Michel was ready to lead the festivities to the local karaoke bar for yet more (less than harmonious) singing.

We began filing out of the donated room which served both as ARCOE headquarters and temporary-apartment for a refugee woman (xenophobia towards Colombians makes finding housing in Quito about as hard as getting a visa at the US Embassy), a few in our party began saying their goodbyes. “Wait, aren’t you coming?” I asked. “No, Meester Estuart,” said Rolando, one of ARCOE’s leaders, “I don’t have a visa. I can’t risk going anywhere but here and my house, so you all have fun.”

Rolando, like two-thirds of all asylum solicitants, was denied a visa by the Ecuadorian government. Undocumented refugees like Rolando don’t have the luxury of going out for a beer. Without healthcare or the money for medicine, they don’t have the luxury of getting sick either. School is another luxury. “My daughter was three months away from finishing high school when we fled Colombia in 2003,” said Rolando. “Today, in Ecuador, she’s three months away from finishing high school.”

Making it from the Outside

When I asked Ecuadorian bureaucrats who evaluated asylum requests how they describe citizenship, they frequently focused on rights and responsibilities for people born in Ecuador. “They’re people born in Ecuador, and the government is obligated to respect their rights,” said one. “Citizenship is the capacity to exercise rights in your country of nationality,” said another.

In this nation-centric view, citizenship has undergone a historical construction. Dating from the Magna Carta, we see the base of the pyramid: civil rights that protect citizens from the excesses of their leaders. The next step is political rights, which allow citizens to democratically participate in government. Finally, there are the social rights of the welfare state that guarantee citizens a certain standard of living.1 However, there are strings attached. Citizens also have the responsibility to obtain certain documents, pay taxes, fight wars and raise families.2

How does this apply to refugees, people who used to be citizens of another country, but fled and renounced this protection? Most importantly, how does “citizenship” apply to those denied asylum, who instead of having rights are labeled as “illegal”?

Out of an estimated 250,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador, only 14,000 (nearly 6 percent) have official refugee status and a promise that the obligations imposed on them by the government will be accompanied by certain rights. For the remaining 94 percent, their lives are defined having no rights and many obligations—primary among them the obligation to return to a country where they’re being hunted down.

Undocumented refugees aren’t taking this lying down. Although the threat of deportation, police extortion, disingenuous employers and xenophobic neighbors all make it extremely difficult for undocumented refugees to stay alive, let alone organize politically, they organize anyway.

ARCOE was a case in point. While traditional theories of citizenship construct the civil-political-social rights pyramid mentioned earlier, refugees organizing from a position of informality invert this structure. ARCOE fought for social rights (access to labor, food, education and healthcare) so that its members could have the basic stability necessary to become politicized and pressure the government. Only through this political involvement will it be possible for refugees to normalize their immigration status and thereby gain the civil rights necessary to protect them from exploitation.

The basis for making it from the outside—obtaining the right to have rights—is to find a basic lifestyle stability despite being undocumented. Refugees made weekly trips to the Mayorista market in south Quito to solicit food donations from vendors. Diana Fernanda, a refugee with official status, held workshops to teach other women about making artisanal jewelry. Rolando talked a job-training center into giving refugees free classes on massage therapy, pizza-making and manicure.

These are small measures, incapable of providing broad solutions to the systemic problems confronting undocumented refugees. However, in many cases they allow people to organize politically instead of constantly struggling to survive by selling empanadas and DVDs on the street or risking their lives as night watchmen, constantly wondering if it won’t be their boss who will do the robbing.

ARCOE’s small successes in finding food and work for refugees gave it a nucleus of committed members who helped the association pressure the government to guarantee universal access to education and provide undocumented refugees with healthcare services. Providing its members with a minimum of stability allowed ARCOE to pursue more political goals, attract media attention and involve itself in negotiations with the state about a general amnesty and normalization of Colombian refugees.

The UNHCR turns a blind eye

Making it from the outside doesn’t have to be this hard. Foremost, Ecuador should allow refugees to truly “come inside” by giving all refugees formal asylum. Secondly, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), provides an overwhelming majority of the funding for Ecuador’s services towards refugees. Without UNHCR funding, Ecuador couldn’t employ more than a single person to process the thousands of asylum requests it receives each year and there would be absolutely no food, education, psychological or health assistance even for recognized refugees. However, this organization refuses to acknowledge the problems of refugees denied asylum.

Rolando went to the UNHCR for help after being denied asylum by Ecuador, along with 19 members of his family comprising four generations. He says their response was, “If the state denied you, I can’t do anything.”

According to Xavier Orellana, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Quito, “If, after completing the entire [asylum solicitation] process, someone is still denied by the government—which we are supporting—this person leaves the circle of protection and falls outside our mandate, that of the population of interest.”

Even though the UNHCR openly recognizes that there are 250,000 Colombians currently in Ecuador in need of protection and that only a small fraction of them have obtained official asylum, it refuses to give direct attention to these hundreds of thousands of refugees. The best they can hope for is to benefit indirectly from programs offered to entire Ecuadorian communities where they may live.

At best, the UNHCR’s attitude towards the vast population of de facto refugees in Ecuador who have been denied official asylum is a hesitance to challenge the decision of a sovereign state. After all, the UNHCR is committed to providing humanitarian assistance and must strictly avoid political issues. Because 98% of UNHCR funding comes from private donations, they fear open disputes with individual countries would stain their reputation and impact donations.

At worst, the UNHCR is complicit in a situation where Colombian refugees are denied their most basic human rights and are being deported back to a country where their lives are endangered. Such deportations are a flagrant violation of the principle of non-refoulement, the bedrock of the UNHCR mission, which states that persecuted people must never be deported to where their persecution took place.

The UNHCR controls the great majority of the donations given for refugee aid and is the leading informant to the media on refugee issues. Its refusal to acknowledge the struggle of undocumented refugees is why ARCOE leaders spoke about the “invisible population”: if the government and the UNHCR refuse to call you a refugee, then you don’t appear in any budget, any pamphlets or any press releases.

You’re not just invisible—you’ve been erased.

“Rebellion is also a right”

When the people at the UNHCR told him they could do nothing for him, Rolando’s response was that “We’re going to do whatever it takes, because otherwise we’re condemned to death.” Since neither the UNHCR nor Ecuador would offer to protect his rights as a refugee, Rolando would demand they do. “Rebellion is also a right,” he said, “and, respecting the laws, we’re going to begin to denounce, and we’re going to begin to diffuse [testimonies], and the most important is that we’re going to begin to organize the people. So that through empowerment we can convert ourselves into subjects of rights. And, respecting the law, we’re going to demand that you comply with what you must do.”

The hundreds of documented and undocumented refugees who comprise ARCOE empower themselves in many different ways. They granted stability to the everyday lives of fellow refugees by giving them access to food, job training and scholarships. They traveled to five South American countries, meeting with governments and NGOs to draw attention to the problems of refugees in Ecuador. They coordinated with displaced people in Colombia (2.5 million Colombians have been forced from their homes since Plan Colombia began in 2000), as well as organizations of Ecuadorian emigrants and Colombian refugees in other countries.

As a result, Colombian refugees join a “movement of movements,” a broad spectrum of exploited groups dreaming that “another world is possible” and using the strategies of “globalization from below” to make that dream a reality. If government is chiefly a power structure that redistributes wealth, the movement of movements creates an autonomous power structure. It is based on principles of direct democracy and human rights and conformed of civil society organizations, community groups, social movements, and intellectuals. It is inclusive of people deemed “illegal,” “undesirable,” and “dangerous” by the predominant political/ economic/ legal structure. ARCOE linked up with other groups of migrants and displaced people, as well as NGOs such as Jesuit Refugee Services in order to access resources its members are denied as “illegal immigrants.” By tapping into these resources, ARCOE was able to act politically and pressure the Ecuadorian government to recognize the rights of all refugees.

You’ll notice I’ve continually mentioned ARCOE in the past tense. The movement of movements and globalization from below are causes for celebration, but their success is not ensured. Between the summers of 2006 and 2008, ARCOE was successful in obtaining basic resources for its members, pressuring the government to recognize all refugees, and familiarizing its members with the language of human rights. However, the association was also electing a new board every few weeks. It relied on a core of organizers who spent long nights and sacrificed valuable job searching time for their cause. Most of its 600 members were sweating it out working long hours in underpaying (and many times nonpaying) jobs, arguing with school principles to enroll their children, and having their savings continuously robbed by police who threaten deportation. They were lucky to make it to the weekly meeting, let alone commit to a leadership position.

Given these hardships and its short lifespan, it is amazing that ARCOE succeeded in committing the government to ensure every child’s right to an education, developing a concrete program for a (as yet unrealized) mass normalization of refugees, resolving technical mistakes in the issue of refugee visas, providing free job training for its members, collecting food for struggling families, and carrying out a continent-wide conscious-raising campaign. All on a budget of zero.

“Illegals” in the movement of movements

Although ARCOE eventually disbanded due to the difficulty of political organizing for people struggling to put food on the table, refugees are still organizing themselves in Ecuador and oppressed people around the world continue to resist being labeled as inherently “illegal.” All across Latin America, people are empowering themselves as citizens despite being undocumented.

If the old model of citizenship was confined to voting, enlisting, laboring and homemaking amongst native-born men and (eventually) women, this model is being radically expanded today. Across Latin America, people deemed “illegal” are empowering themselves to protect their human right to live peaceful, rooted, fulfilling and healthy lives despite constant challenges. Their human rights citizenship tears down these boundaries.

In Brazil, the Landless Worker’s Movement uses direct action techniques to fight for land rights, agrarian reform, and popular control of natural resources. In Ecuador, campesinos are resisting open pit copper mining and spreading grassroots environmentalism to protect their right to healthy, strong communities. In Argentina, workers are waging constant legal battles to defend their right to employment and recuperate closed factories. In Mexico, the Zapatistas weather constant persecution as they organize the Left “from the bottom up” and fight for rights of indigenous autonomy and land reform. In the US, undocumented immigrants create rich communities despite ever larger raids which seek to tear them apart. In Colombia, the Nasa Indians and other communities struggle for their right to peacefully remain on their land and stay out of Colombia’s conflict, despite violent repression from paramilitaries, the FARC and government forces.

All these people have been declared “illegal”, be it for occupying vacant lands, refusing to accept displacement and pollution, taking collective ownership of factories, asserting autonomy and good government, trying to make a living, or for just refusing to take sides.

Their fight is born of poverty, but their solutions are the innovative models of democracy that will spearhead this century’s social justice movements.

The movement of movements is also born of something stronger than poverty: human dignity. In the words of Rolando, “People are creatures of habit, and we accustom ourselves to bearing many things. But we believe that dignity is something they can never touch; it’s what makes us raise our heads and fight to survive….God must need us for something, so while we can stand up, while we can fight, here we’ll be. We’ve got a lot to do.”

Stuart Schussler was a Fulbright scholar in Ecuador, where he worked with refugees in Quito. He was also a human rights observer with the Intag Solidarity Network in Intag, Ecuador, where peasant ecologists fight to protect their land from open-pit copper mining. He can be reached at stuartcan4(at)yahoo(dot)com.


1 This pyramidal conception of citizenship rights comes from Marshall, Thomas Humphrey (1965), Class, Citizenship and Social Development, Anchor Books.

2 Bryan Turner writes about the stereotypical roles expected of citizens in “The Erosion of Citizenship” (2001), British Journal of Sociology 52(2).