As Europe closes borders, Ecuador says 'no one is illegal'


Day care centre for Colombian refugees in Ecuador.

Governments across the world are erecting walls and tightening laws to keep refugees out, but one country is taking a radically different approach based on the simple premise that “no one is illegal”.

The Andean nation of Ecuador, with a population of 15.7 million people, is no stranger to the challenges of dealing with refugee crises.

Ecuador houses about 50,000 refugees seeking asylum within its borders. This is the largest refugee population in any country in Latin America. The vast majority of these refugees want to become permanent residents.

The overwhelming majority are victims of the decades-long civil war raging in neighbouring Colombia. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report found Colombia is second only to Syria in terms of displaced people.

Since 2000, 60,000 Colombians have received refugee status in Ecuador - most since left-wing President Rafael Correa came to power in 2007.

Correa’s election marked a sharp break with the traditional political class, which had become thoroughly discredited after years of implementing pro-rich neoliberal policies.

In contrast, Correa pushed forward with a number of measures that social movements had been fighting for over many years.

Among these were the removal of foreign military bases from Ecuadorian territory, no free trade agreement with the US, and the convening of an elected constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.

A new constitution - widely recognised as one of the most progressive in the world - was approved in a referendum in 2008. As well as enshrining important rights for indigenous communities and the environment, the new constitution grants migrants and refugees the same rights as citizens - including access to free healthcare and education.

The constitution also explicitly recognises the right to seek asylum. Article 40 states: “No human being will be identified or considered illegal due to their migratory status.”

In a bid to implement this measure, the government accepted the claims of 39,000 Colombian refugees between 2009 and 2010, more than double the number accepted during the previous decade.

This was done as part of the Correa government’s “Enhanced Registration Process”. Colombians refugees were actively sought out to process their claims as quickly as possible.

In May 2012, however, Correa was criticised by groups working with refugees for issuing a decree requiring refugees to register with authorities within 15 days of entering the country or risk not having their claims processed. The Constitutional Court later overturned the decree, declaring it went against the spirit of the constitution.

Now, an important step has been taken towards turning these constitutional principles into law. In July, seven parliamentarians, six of whom were elected by Ecuadorian migrants living outside the country, tabled a new bill.

The bill not only covers the rights of refugees, but also migrants and Ecuadoreans living outside the country.

Linda Machuca, one of the law's proponents, explained that the bill seeks to recognise “the 2 million Ecuadoreans living outside their homeland as part of our transnational family, as well as the more than 60,000 people with refugee status and another 60,000 applicants who are in Ecuador [seeking refugee status]”.

The bill outlines 12 key principles, including a ban on criminalising refugees and migrants: “No one will be criminalised due to their migratory situation … Irregular migratory condition is not a crime.”

Article 126 of the proposed law states: “No person applying for refugee status will be rejected or stopped at the border or immigration control, nor will they be returned, expelled, extradited or subject to any measure that obliges or exposes them to returning to the territory where their life, security or integrity is at risk …”

The law proposes to ensure all refugees are guaranteed due process and have their claims assessed as quickly as possible, at no cost to the asylum seeker.

Such progressive views towards refugees are not unique in the region

Bolivia's left-wing president Evo Morales has also been outspoken on the issue, declaring his country supports the idea of universal citizenship.

“In Bolivia … we will try and welcome migrants because they are human beings”, he said in June while in Italy. “And we don’t use the term ‘illegal’ because we must have universal citizenship.”

Acknowledging that the issue of immigration was complex, Morales said it was necessary to tackle the causes: “Migratory flows are caused by capitalism, by wars, by military intervention and the fact that wealth is concentrated in the hands of too few people.

“We need to democratise resources.”

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