A Small Step Forward for Refugee Rights in Detention

With accelerating growth in South-South migration, Ecuador has become a popular regional destination for migrants. The economy has grown in recent years, with standards of living rising. Ecuador’s dollarization and relatively open immigration policy has arguably made the country an attractive place to find socio-economic opportunities.

But many of those detained in Ecuador are not economic migrants in search of work, but Colombian refugees forcibly displaced by decades of armed conflict. With paramilitaries still active in southern Colombia, close to the border, many Colombians travel south to seek safety in Ecuador. Despite Ecuador’s policy of “open borders”, the detention and deportation of individuals with irregular immigration status occurs with alarming frequency.

When foreigners are detained because they lack the right visa or legal status, they are brought before a magistrate who determines whether deportation is appropriate. Those detained may be held for over two months at a detention center, often without being informed about their fate or whether they have any rights.

Until recently, Quito’s Centro de Detenciones Temporales para Extranjeros en Situación Migratoria Irregular, or Temporary Detention Center for Foreigners in Irregular Migrant Situations, was located at Hotel Hernán[1]. Residents of Hotel Hernan were detainees who might be deported on any given day. Guards kept watch over its residents, patrolling the premises where detainees temporarily reside on gender-segregated floors. Once inside, it was evident that poor security, hygiene and food provisions were a norm.

In November of 2012, based on the complaints received from detainees, Asylum Access Ecuador filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office, who immediately started investigating allegations of rights violations experienced by 17 individuals. This was eventually brought before a judge, who deemed the authorities in violation of migrant rights. The judge accepted a Habeas Corpus and ruled that the detention of the 17 individuals would be replaced with the option of appearing before the provincial head of migration every 10 days.

This is a great victory for refugee rights and promotes an alternative to detention that both respects refugees’ right to freedom of movement and the host country’s concerns about monitoring incoming migrants.

While the decision is a step forward for refugees’ right to freedom of movement, it still fails to address some fundamental refugee rights violations. Refugees may still be deported on short notice, sometimes with less than 12 hours to seek assistance. Mandatory check-ins at the Provincial Head of Migration may improve freedom of movement, but still constrains mobility and consequently, the ability to seek employment in other locations and take back control of their lives. Without deeper policy change, refugees must still contend with the daily fear of deportation and find the means to report to the authorities while leading a normal life.

In recent years, Latin America’s largest refugee hosting country has shown some willingness to improve refugee policies. It added refugee work rights to the constitution in 2008 and made a handful of rulings upholding refugee rights. Yet Ecuador is still far from having strong rule of law protections for refugees. As we welcome January’s ruling, we look forward to even greater strides for refugee rights empowerment in Ecuador.

Written by AAE Access to Rights Coordinator Ahmed Correa

[1] The Temporary Detention Center for Foreigners in Irregular Migrant Situations has recently been moved to Hotel Carrión.

Published in February 2012