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Diana Iñiguez, a lawyer for Jesuit Refugee Service Ecuador, offers information to a newly displaced family in Tulcán, Ecuador. (Gorka Ortega — JRS LAC)

(Tulcán, Ecuador) April 8, 2013 — During Holy Week, we made a quick visit to Pasto, the capital of the Colombian department of Nariño, located on the border with Ecuador, where Jesuit Refugee Service has begun a bi-national project to accompany an ever-growing number of Colombians who arrive seeking protection in Ecuador.

We crossed the border and arrived at the JRS Ecuador office in Tulcán, the first Ecuadorian city after crossing the Rumichaca Bridge. This is the first place encountered by Colombians who flee, looking for protection they were unable to find in their own country.

We speak with colleagues in the office there and learn first-hand what refugees who are coming to Ecuador experience.

Currently, Ecuador has approximately 56,000 recognized refugees, the majority of whom are Colombian, making it the largest host country of refugees in the region. Until May of 2012, Ecuador was one of the most respectful countries with regard to international law, but after the approval of Decree 1182, the landscape for asylum applicants has changed drastically.

"This decree violates the Constitution and human rights," said a JRS Ecuador staff person who works in Tulcán. 

One of the most worrying parts of the Decree is that it imposes a 15-day window to apply for asylum after an individual enters Ecuador. Regarding this, the staff person said, "At the moment when a person enters Ecuador seeking asylum, they are no longer granted an interview. Instead they are simply asked: 'When did you arrive in Ecuador?' And based on this question alone, they determine whether they can or cannot apply for refugee status."

This 15-day window alarmingly restricts the right to asylum as the majority of people coming to Ecuador seeking asylum don’t know the national legislation, and it often takes several days for them to connect with organizations that offer legal guidance. 

On the other hand, one must keep in mind that many people are distrustful [of authorities] as a result of the experiences that caused them to flee Colombia. Finally, in many cases, the migration authorities require documentation to request asylum that they don’t have because their decision to leave Colombia wasn’t premeditated.

"When they receive a negative decision, out of fear of being forcibly returned to their country of origin or because they aren’t aware of their rights, they leave for distant communities. This causes an invisibilization of these people," concluded the staff person. 

In the past, Ecuador has been internationally recognized as an example of best practices regarding the human rights of refugees and has always been a hospitable country. However, the current situation puts many people requesting asylum at risk as they may be deprived of protection upon crossing the Ecuadorian border.

By Gorka Ortega
Jesuit Refugee Service Latin America and Caribbean 

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