Bringing Refugee Legal Aid to Remote Areas in Ecuador

In early 2012, Ecuador’s Department of Refugees (DR) organized mobile offices to facilitate the renewal of refugee visas in remote communities.  Through these efforts, it came to light that there is a large population of undocumented refugees in San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas who are barred access to the refugee status determination (RSD) process solely because their point of entry is this seemingly forgotten port.

Thousands of refugees regularly flee to San Lorenzo from Nariño, one of the most conflict-ridden, unstable territories in Colombia today. Travelling on small, rickety boats via the city of Tumaco, refugees arrive in San Lorenzo hoping to escape the violence, only to find themselves in San Lorenzo, which itself is plagued by poverty and crime.

The majority who seek refuge in San Lorenzo are illiterate, uneducated, Afro-Colombian farm workers.  While there are no official numbers of refugees in San Lorenzo, independent reports estimate that 1,500 refugees arrive in Ecuador every month.

In order to seek refugee status, refugees must make a four-hour bus journey to the provincial capital of Esmeraldas, which costs about $20 per person for transportation and food for the day. Along the way, they may encounter security checks and asked for their documents, which can end in detention and deportation.

Unable to travel due to high costs and risks, refugees are effectively trapped in San Lorenzo. Furthermore, most refugees lack awareness of the concept of a refugee, much less the intricacies of international refugee law and the RSD process.

After consulting with the Ecuadorian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE) held its first outreach initiative in San Lorenzo in February 2012 to target those who had not previously applied for refugee status.  We were overwhelmed by the number of refugees that showed up hours in advance to line up for our legal services. In just one week, we assumed representation of 215 asylum seekers even after turning away dozens due to limited resources.

While AAE has previously brought refugee legal aid to communities outside our Quito office through Mobile Legal Clinics, including monthly legal clinics to Esmeraldas, this marked the first time we were doing outreach on a large scale for such an underserved population.

Submitting 215 applications for refugee status to the DR office in Esmeraldas was just the first step. This secured interview dates with government authorities, who kindly agreed to hold multiple interviews on the same day so that refugees would only need to make the trip once. On our part, we helped refugees understand the next steps of the RSD process through Know Your Rights trainings and continue to make frequent trips to ensure government decisions were delivered quickly to our clients and offer follow-up consultations.

As a result of that one week initiative, 59 refugees in San Lorenzo have been admitted into the asylum-seeking process* to date. They have received carnets, identification cards given to asylum seekers in the process of soliciting for refugee status. This means that they can now travel to the DR office in Esmeraldas without fear of being detained and deported, and can seek legal employment to support their families.

Our work provides critical legal assistance in the first stage of the RSD process to empower refugees to claim their own rights. Refugees must then take ownership of their application by returning to Esmeraldas to renew their document and attend interview appointments.  This empowers them to claim their own rights and respond to rights violations better in future. While many nongovernmental organizations in San Lorenzo have fostered a culture of humanitarian aid, our unique vision of empowerment for long-term sustainable change is forging a different future for refugees.

By educating refugees about their rights in Ecuador and helping them realize that they are part of a global community with rights to international protection, they see that they do not have to make-do with odd jobs or inhumane labor conditions to support their families. They also achieve the strength to respond to rights violations better in the future. Through their awareness of the RSD process, refugees can take control of their lives and make empowered decisions for a better future.

*In Ecuador, refugees must first apply to be admitted into the RSD or asylum-seeking process, instead of directly seeking refugee status.

By Asylum Access Ecuador Volunteer Legal Advocate Rita Crowley-Ornelas, and Policy Advocate Intern and Communication Liason Adina Appelbaum