Refugees in Ecuador: Putting Post-Neoliberalism to the Test

Street Vendor in Ecuador

At an estimated 250,000, there are currently more refugees in Ecuador than in any other Latin American country. They don’t live in far-removed camps, but instead struggle to survive in Ecuador’s informal urban economies, largely because the Ecuadorian government denies the majority of asylum requests.

Street Vendor in Ecuador

This is part two 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. Read the first article here.

At an estimated 250,000, there are currently more refugees in Ecuador than in any other Latin American country. They don’t live in far-removed camps, but instead struggle to survive in Ecuador’s informal urban economies, largely because the Ecuadorian government denies the majority of asylum requests.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the millions of citizens who support him cannot truly emerge from “the long and sorrowful night of neoliberalism” until they stop relegating refugees to second-class status.

“We slept in the streets waiting for a turn,” recounts Diana Fernanda when I asked her about soliciting asylum in Quito, Ecuador. “We had to survive on something. I’ve been an artisan for about 14 years. So I started working here, but without documents. Everything went well, but here [in Ecuador] they don’t like us [Colombians]. One of the people in the market where I worked went and brought Migration. That day I wasn’t able to flee, because we always managed to flee. They caught me and imprisoned me for 8 days. They wanted to deport me. My family couldn’t come [to help]. . . because we hadn’t yet solicited refuge because we’d never gotten a turn.”

Diana Fernanda was displaced by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia along with 27 other members of her family because she has family members in the Colombian military. Eventually, her crisis was resolved.

“By bribing a number of people and giving out money we didn’t have at the time," said Diana Fernanda, "we were able to keep me from being deported.”

Her imprisonment illustrates the nature of vulnerability, which affects nearly all refugees in Ecuador. After being torn from their social fabric in Colombia, any minor problem can easily become an immense one. Diana Fernanda wasn’t able to normalize her immigration status by soliciting asylum, and when combined with xenophobia towards Colombians in Ecuador, this brought her to the brink of being deported to a country where her life is at risk.

There are currently 14,000 recognized refugees in Ecuador who struggle with xenophobia and administrative incompetence in accessing their rights. However, this leaves an estimated 236,000 undocumented refugees who don’t even enjoy formal access to rights in Ecuador.

In February of 2005, the government announced its intention to regularize these refugees, but no concrete actions have been taken since.

Xenophobia towards Colombians in Ecuador is alarming, especially considering up to one-eighth of Ecuadorians have emigrated and face similar xenophobia abroad. Diana Fernanda experienced it when her artisanal stand burnt down.

“Here in Quito they were having the Miss Universe contest, so the majority of us went into debt because the contestants were going to this market…Two days before, a Colombian friend of mine called and said, ‘Look on TV at what’s happening!’ The market was burning," she said. "We immediately caught a taxi and arrived there and there was help for everyone so they were all calm. But we were renters. We were Colombians. For us there weren’t any loans. There wasn’t any help and we sat there with our arms crossed. For one year we couldn’t move forward because depression almost took me to the grave.”

Meanwhile, all immigrants, documented and undocumented, have the right to an education in Ecuador. However, this right frequently only exists on paper. Ecuadorian school principles demand documentation impossible to obtain without returning to Colombia, or they simply say enrollment is full.

One refugee couple, which succeeded in enrolling their daughter, explained to me that her elementary teacher frequently physically punished her in front of the class. Given the difficulty they’d had in enrolling her in the first place, they were forced to decide between tolerating the abusive situation and sacrificing the girl’s education altogether.

Xenophobia also affects access to housing. While only 8.3 percent of refugee families in Quito report having lived in just one or two rooms in Colombia, 36.8 percent say this is their situation in Ecuador. In addition to finding steady work to pay rent, proprietors frequently demand that Colombians pay exorbitant security deposits, provide numerous references, prove their employment status and also supply criminal background tests. Frequently proprietors, upon noting a Colombian accent, suddenly remember that the room was just rented out yesterday.

Government incompetence is another barrier to rights. Michel, chased out of Colombia because her brother exposed collusion between the military and paramilitaries, explains that “The [refugee] visa has the numbers that are on your national ID. In Colombia, our national ID has seven digits. Here it has ten. So when they try and put it [the seven-digit visa number] into the social security system or whatever else, it immediately rejects the number.” This inconsistency, only recently corrected, long prevented recognized refugees from opening bank accounts, entering the social security system and applying for scholarships.

For the 236,000 de facto refugees in the undocumented “gray zone” of legal limbo, basic stability is tenuous and blatant exploitation is frighteningly common. Upon arriving in Ecuador, Wilmar worked as a hairdresser until his employer, refusing to pay him, accused him of stealing from the salon. She sent the police to his apartment to search for the stolen goods, and even though they didn’t find anything, they still took away nearly all his possessions. Only after pleading with the police for the sake of his wife and one-year-old daughter was Wilmar able to keep a mattress and stove.

Many refugees complain about having to walk around with “a dollar in the pocket,” since police looking for bribes frequently threaten them with deportation.

Labor exploitation is also rampant for refugees. Andrea and Juan worked with the help of their daughters for a combined wage of under $7 per day making pizzas. “[Our employer] was well-known amongst the high schools for distributing personal pizzas. So he’d say, ‘I need 700 for tomorrow morning’ and we’d have to work until it was done," they explained. "Here one normally works from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon for a schedule. We were there from six in the morning until twelve at night, one, two in the morning depending on the workload.”

At least Andrea and Juan were paid for their culinary sweatshop labor. All too frequently employers simply never pay refugees, manipulating them into working month after month in hope of an eventual paycheck. This is not just a violation of refugee rights, it is a denial of their right to have rights1 because refugees have no one to effectively complain to about these transgressions.

“From here [Quito] to the [Colombian] border and there are four checkpoints, in which the police get on and say, ‘Whoever is Colombian, get off,'” relates Diana Fernanda. “They take out your suitcase. They rummage through it however they want. They keep whatever things they want. They take your money if they want. And nothing happens. There isn’t anyone to complain to, there isn’t anyone to tell. Nothing happens. So what about ‘human rights’?”

The day he took office, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa spoke of “the long and sorrowful night of neoliberalism,” pledging to embrace the “citizen revolution” that had spawned powerful social movements and ousted three corrupt presidents in eight years. However, the vulnerability and lack of rights currently facing Colombian refugees in Ecuador are reminiscent of the type of privatized, do-it-yourself citizenship championed under the neoliberal model. If a citizen revolution is indeed taking place, why are two hundred thousand refugees still living in Ecuador undocumented and without recognized human rights?

The short answer is that reversing the neoliberal legacy doesn’t happen overnight. This ideology gravely affected the machinery of government, and rebuilding a demolished state takes time. Secondly, xenophobia against Colombians provides a strong disincentive against reversing neoliberalism’s legacy where it applies to refugees.

Reagan succinctly expressed a central mantra of neoliberalism when he declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” While the welfare state Reagan criticized sought to provide broad access to social services, no welfare system ever existed in Ecuador. Consequently, when neoliberalism was introduced here, it removed what was an already-tattered social safety net.

The result is apparent in the Ecuadorian government’s Office of Refugees. Although its mission statement commits it to integrating refugees into their new communities and assuring the respect of their human rights, in reality it is hardly able to process all the requests for asylum it receives.

“We have enough work [to last until] October,” a functionary in the Office of Refugees told me in July. “We’re always four or five months behind. . . So in reality, I think what we deal with the least is public policy.”

The “public policy” mentioned here refers to a broad range of measures meant to guarantee that the rights formally promised to official refugees are present in reality, running the gamut of briefing law enforcement on the rights of refugees, ensuring that refugee children are admitted into schools, creating programs to help refugees integrate into communities with their Ecuadorian neighbors, and standing up to exploitative employers.

In 2008, Ecuador’s budget for the entire bureaucratic grouping charged with refugee assistance was $85,000, with an extra $313,000 given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. (The total budget for the UNHCR this year is $5.2 million.) Without this additional funding, the Office of Refugees could hardly employ more than a single person to address to needs of the quarter-million refugees in Ecuador.

Despite this utter lack of funding, claiming that Ecuador is still firmly wedded to the neoliberal model merely because it fails to adequately support the Office of Refugees is hardly convincing. Ecuador’s unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, underemployment is at 47 percent, and 7 percent of the country’s GDP comes from the remittances of economic refugees living abroad. It isn’t surprising that politicians allocate scarce resources towards programs for those who can vote over those who cannot.

However, granting de facto refugees legal status as such provides them an important resource at a minimal cost. Having your rights formally recognized, even if they don’t exist in practice, is the first step towards gaining the right to have rights.

Regularizing refugees doesn’t entail the obligation to give, but to allow: not to give refugees housing or food, but the obligation to allow them to work, allow them to stay in Ecuador and to allow them to seek justice against those who violate their rights. Even for a state with severe budget constraints, conferring legal status to all refugees can be done at a minimal cost. The state certainly has a larger obligation towards ensuring refugee access to the basic resources of housing, food, work, education and health care, but ensuring their basic right to have rights is a necessary first step.

The status quo, where a mere 6 percent of refugees are formally recognized as such, is a situation all too common under neoliberalism. This ideology seeks to facilitate capital flows while restricting migration flows. North American trade liberalization under NAFTA paired with the US construction of a border wall is the most prominent example. Neoliberal market-oriented citizenship is inclusive of middle and upper class citizen/consumers and excludes those incapable of obtaining high standards of living.

However, Ecuador cannot afford to pay the $3 million per mile cost the US pays for its border wall or the $49 billion US states spent last year to incarcerate 2.3 million prisoners. A cheaper solution is to simply deny legal status to unwanted groups and exploit and deport them at will.

Despite Correa’s anti-neoliberal rhetoric, the situation of Colombian refugees reflects this neoliberal exclusion. Refugees capable of providing detailed documentation of their displacement are granted official refugee status more often, and most upper class Colombian refugees don’t even bother to solicit asylum—they simply buy a labor visa for $1000.

While many neoliberal policies, such as privatization, deregulation and a focus on exportation, have been the result of World Trade Organization demands and the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programs, the exclusion of refugees is not part of this program. Denial of refugee human rights stems mainly from a strong xenophobia against Colombians, seen as narcotraffickers, delinquents and prostitutes, which leads to scapegoating. Plan Colombia and the resulting massive influx of refugees into Ecuador coincided with the catastrophic meltdown of Ecuador’s economy in 1999. Colombians are scapegoated for the jump in urban crime that accompanied this crisis. In 2003, Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutiérrez and his Minister of Labor stated that Colombians were mainly to blame for the rise in crime,2 and in 2002 50,000 Ecuadorians marched in Quito in support of blanket deportations of Colombians.3

Ecuadorians, who have long considered their country to be “an island of peace” wedged between a fifty-year civil war in Colombia and Peru’s conflict with the Shining Path, are also worried that refugees will bring Colombia’s conflict across the border with them.

These reasons for the mistreatment of Colombian refugees are not part of the neoliberal plan, but the resulting situation is typical of a neoliberal society. Those with ample resources are admitted and those without are left to fend for themselves in the informal sector. More than simply rebelling against IMF hegemony and asserting communal ownership of key resources, moving to a post-neoliberal society means replacing the defense of the free market with a defense of human rights.

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 idea comes from Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Totalitarianism, Chapter 9: “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”, Harvest Books.

2 Benavides, Gina (2007). Informe Sombra: Análisis sobre información general. Quito: Coalición Interinstitucional Para el Seguimiento y Difusión de la Convención Internacional para la Protección de los Derechos de Todos los Trabajadores Migratorios y sus Familiares- Ecuador. p.31-2

3 Ponce, Alexis (2003). “Colombianos/as en Ecuador: Rastros que cuentan historias”. Tintají, Second half of July. p.8-9.