An interview with Karina Sarmiento, Asylum Access Ecuador Country Director
You’ve led the office through some significant growth in the past year. Can you tell us a bit about the changes?
Yes, there have been radical changes this year! Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE) launched mobile legal clinics a few years ago to reach refugee populations in remote areas like Esmeraldas and Lago Agrio.
Building upon this, we launched additional offices across Ecuador this year. We now have a permanent presence along the border in Lago Agrio, Tulcan, Esmeraldas, Guayaquil, and Santo Domingo.
In Ecuador, we are not conducting legal services in the traditional way, by simply waiting for people to come to us at our office in Quito. Instead, we bring refugee legal aid directly to various refugee communities. So far, this approach has been successful in reaching high-need refugee communities.
Within the organization, this growth also meant the development of a broader community outreach program, which is critical for us to remain informed about the evolving challenges of the refugee community. We now have more tools to conduct participatory workshops, needs assessments workshops and other trainings to learn from and engage refugee communities.
What exactly do these changes mean for refugees in Ecuador?
While our work is constrained by limited resources and local factors, having a permanent presence in seven locations makes a huge difference. In the past, we would provide consultations with refugees in the provinces for just few days a month in each location. While this brought our services to additional communities, there were many limitations on how much we were able to do.
Our permanent presence this year means that we can respond more effectively and immediately. This is a huge step forward for our work empowering refugees to access their rights. Also, we can now advocate more locally with municipal or provincial government authorities in communities where we have offices.
Can you describe some of the differences between working in rural and urban areas?
In the urban areas, many refugees who walk into our office already know some of their basic rights. In contrast, refugees in rural areas are less aware of their rights and resources available from other organizations. They are also more likely to be illiterate and require a different approach, such as the use of participatory activities in workshops to help them understand their options.
In some ways, working in the provinces is easier than urban centers like Quito and Guayaquil. In rural areas, local authorities are more accessible and in one province, we’ve even provided refugee law trainings to local authorities.
Can you tell me more about the recent changes in Ecuadorian government policies? How have these affected AAE’s work?
The government introduced Decree 1182 earlier this year, which has created a tougher socio-political climate. Before the decree, AAE was already working on new strategies for community outreach. The decree has created a greater need for these to be implemented quickly. Specifically, I am referring to the requirement that refugees must now seek legal status within 15 days upon arrival, or they will no longer be eligible for refugee status.
The new decree adds many restrictions in terms of refugees’ access to the refugee status determination process, but it may also provide more opportunities in terms of access to work rights. One very positive aspect of the new decree is that now refugees and asylum seekers have the right to work. So we are trying to play around with this by focusing on what opportunities the new decree provides and how we can deal with the new restrictions in a more creative, dynamic and efficient way.
What we can’t forget is that refugee rights issues, although stated in the law as a legal issue, is also a political issue. We have the constitution and we have to stick with that. It is always our main instrument. That won’t change and we must continue to advocate for the full implementation rights protected by our constitution. We need to keep what is in the constitution alive and build new strategies to do that.
Given that the Ecuadorian government was previously more open to refugees, and even included refugees’ right to work in the constitution of 2008, are you optimistic for a change in the near future? Why or why not?
Yes. I don’t know how quickly the change will take place, but we are working to highlight civil society’s role in refugee rights empowerment. We are facing a difficult period where the Ecuadorian government sees civil society as an adversary, and we are trying to show that this is not true. While there are certain things we may not agree on, there are still ways to build up policy strategies to fulfill what the constitution says. We cannot go beyond the constitution because it is already so important for refugee rights. The aim is not to change the constitution but to fulfill it. That’s why we are working much more towards access to rights. In that sense, the constitution and the new decree opens up new opportunities for us.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Yes! I want to thank our excellent team of volunteer legal advocates from around the world. They are the reason we have been able to expand in Ecuador. Our work is done with the help of our volunteers and we are very proactive in making sure that they are adequately trained to provide the highest quality of service to our clients, while also giving our volunteers a unique, life-altering experience during their time with Asylum Access.
Interview conducted by Communications and Development Assistant Sandra ten Zijthoff
Published November 2012