The Constitutional Court of Ecuador recently raised the hopes of hundreds of people who have been forced to flee the violence in Colombia. A landmark decision by the Constitutional Court in Ecuador has struck down the most restrictive provisions of a decree limiting access to asylum.
Ecuador has a long tradition as a leading provider of asylum to those fleeing violence in their home countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has highlighted the efforts made by Ecuador since the start of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia. However, to date no more than 57,000 refugees have been granted refugee status in Ecuador, 98% of these are Colombians.
Since June 2012, Decree 1182 has imposed two main barriers for those seeking asylum in Ecuador, including the need to register with the authorities within 15 days of arrival in the country. This is particularly difficult for those crossing the border from Colombia in remote rural areas. They are often unaware of the rule and may lack the money to travel to a designated city to report to the authorities – sometimes 4 hours drive away. Some are traumatised by their experiences of conflict and fear reporting to the authorities. Organisations working with refugees point out that the majority of new arrivals fail to comply and are subsequently denied refugee status, becoming illegal migrants. They are unable to work; access housing and most importantly, risk being deported back to Colombia.
Decree 1182 also requires refugees to be able to prove they were subjected to individual persecution, which is based on the 1951 Refugee Convention. However in the past Ecuador had adopted a much broader definition of refugees set out in the Cartagena Declaration, the overarching regional human rights instrument. This also recognises those fleeing generalised violence or massive violations of human rights as refugees and applies to many Colombians who would otherwise be excluded. It is significant that in 2013, during the period immediately following the enactment of the Decree, the refugee recognition rate reached a record low of 16 per cent; for every 100 people who applied international protection, only 16 obtained the status.
In response to an application by national and international organisations working with refugees in Ecuador (including NRC programmatic and advocacy initiatives), the Constitutional Court declared that Decree 1182 violates the principle of equality enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution. The Court´s decision extends the time period for newly arrived refugees to register, from 15 days to three months. It also expands the refugee definition to reflect the Cartagena Declaration – to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”. Through this decision, the Constitutional Court has upheld Ecuador´s international legal obligations towards refugees.
NRC runs a regional programme aiming to respond to the need for international protection of Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in Venezuela, Ecuador and Panamá, including access to information, counselling and legal assistance. For more information about this programme, visit www.nrc.org.co
Holding Out in Ecuador
Photo: NRC/David Garcia
Rubí and her mother were forced to abandon their land in Colombia and flee to Ecuador after having endured over five years of threats, harassment and theft. Aged 16,
Rubí had to abandon education to help her mother survive and pay rent. They could only afford to eat once a day:
I worked collecting plastic bottles or doing house cleaning. This was painful work as the house owner asked me to clean pipes and I injured my hand. We sought help from the government of Ecuador but they told us that we were refugees and should consider going home.
Rubí got pregnant and lost her job. She and her mother found a small room with no running water or cooking facilities. Its dampness began to affect her health. Fortunately, her mother was offered a room in a community hall in return for caretaking duties. This transformed their lives. After giving birth, Rubí was able to return to school and hopes to continue studying to improve their family income. She knows they may be asked to leave the community hall. She hopes that when this happens she will be able to apply to receive a decent place to bring up her child.