Reaching Wrongly-Detained Refugees

In September 2010, VLA Ashley Connell and I nervously waited as prison guards searched us before letting us into the Centro de Rehabilitación Social de Varones de Quito #2, one of Quito’s three men’s prisons. We had no idea what to expect once inside. Prior to this visit, Ashley and I corresponded with the Director of the men’s prison and obtained permission to organize an upcoming Know Your Rights workshop to inform refugees and asylum seekers of their rights and how to assert them.

AAE detained refugeesAfter speaking with the Director and several inmates who were in charge of the prison’s common area, we arranged to return the following week to present our very first workshop, in English and Spanish so as to reach the broadest audience possible. It was much larger than anticipated and approximately 80 inmates crowded into the room. Some were eager to hear our presentation and learn about their rights, others just bored and curious to see what these two “gringas” could possibly have to say. Asylum Access Ecuador has since expanded its work into all three of the men’s prisons, reaching approximately 230 inmates in our workshops. Of these participants, we have provided direct client services to approximately 90 people.

Since that first Know Your Rights workshop, the project has grown exponentially. At times it has been extremely difficult to manage the case load in the prisons, as well as manage the inmates during our weekly visits, since so many people are in need of services. Most of the prison directors have surprisingly offered us a warm welcome to work in the prisons, but some of the prison directors have also changed, which means beginning the process and forming relationships with the new directors all over again. Unfortunately, the Ecuadorian government has recently decided, as a matter of policy, to blanket deny every refugee applicant with a criminal history in Ecuador, as well as revoke the visas of all previously recognized refugees, in violation of the 1951 Convention. This recent change has forced Asylum Access Ecuador to reevaluate the program and consult with UNHCR to address this unlawful policy change.

Despite these challenges, the prison project has been extremely rewarding on a personal level. Many of our clients are already recognized refugees, others are in the process of applying for refugee status and others are applying for the very first time. Some of their stories are heartbreaking, and they are so appreciative to see us every week, even if just to see a familiar face.

Our greatest success story comes from a West African client who approached me after our very first presentation. John was convicted of using a false passport and arrested at the airport in Quito. He told the police that he fled his country because he suffered serious political persecution, explaining that he had been arrested and tortured by the government and his family had been massacred. While he should have been interviewed by the Refugee Office at that moment, or referred to UNHCR, instead John remained in pre-trial detention and was eventually convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. He approached me 8 months into his sentence. As a result of our intervention, John was granted refugee status soon after. Weeks later, we also won a Habeas Corpus action in which we argued that his detention was illegal because the 1951 Refugee Convention and Ecuadorian Constitutional law forbid the State from imposing criminal sanctions on refugee applicants who enter the country illegally (for instance, with a false passport) or remain there without documentation. Asylum Access Ecuador is still pursuing reparations for John in the Constitutional Court. We have also recently discovered two other inmates who had been detained for the same reason.

After nearly a year of weekly prison visits, there is still much work to be done. But through the work of Asylum Access Ecuador, dozens of refugees have gained access to the Refugee Office and now have the opportunity to assert their rights.

By Asylum Access Ecuador VLA and Loyola Law School Public Interest Fellow Jenna Gilbert

Published August 2011