Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

ECUADOR: “Universal Citizenship” Clashes with Reality

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Feb 14 2011 (IPS) - “Good morning. I’ve come to see a friend,” says a young man in a brown cap carrying a small plastic bag of apples. The receptionist opens the iron-barred door and lets him in to the aged, third-rate hotel in Quito’s historic centre, rented in its entirety by the Ecuadorian state to house undocumented immigrants.

A member of the migration police posted there said he was not allowed to make statements, but chatted anyway. About 30 people, mainly from Cuba and Colombia, were lodged at the hotel, he told IPS.

More than a hotel, though, it is a detention centre, because no one can leave. It has been housing immigrants since January, when relatives and civil society organisations staged protests for several weeks over the poor conditions in which the immigrants were formerly being held in migration police jails on the north side of Quito.

The mounting protests outside the jails prompted the Interior Ministry to rent the hotel. “We did it because we wanted to treat them with dignity,” National Secretariat for Migrants Minister Lorena Escudero told IPS.

“There are televisions in the rooms, and they get three meals a day,” the police officer went on. “They stay here until they are deported.” “Or until they can legalise their status,” chipped in the young man with the brown cap, in a Cuban accent.

Severo Padrón (not his real name) has come to visit a friend who was detained in a migration police raid in November. Padrón is a legal resident of Ecuador, but his friend is not.

The situation runs counter to Article 416 of the Ecuadorian constitution of 2008, which upholds the principle of “universal citizenship” — meaning that everyone in a country should enjoy the same rights as citizens — the free movement of all people on the planet, and the gradual elimination of the status of alien or foreigner.

In accordance with this principle, the government of President Rafael Correa waived visa requirements for all foreigners visiting Ecuador for up to 90 days.

When the measure came into force on Jun. 20, 2008, Correa stated he was determined to “dismantle those 20th century inventions, passports and visas.”

But subsequently, the government backtracked. In December 2009 it reinstated visa requirements for Chinese citizens, and in September 2010 for nationals of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia.

The measure was taken “after detecting an unusual migratory influx of persons from those countries,” according to Leonardo Carrión, under secretary of migration and consular affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

Carrión told IPS that Ecuador was being used as a transit country for people trying to enter the United States and Brazil.

Ecuador’s liberal migration policy caused enormous concern, from the month following its entry into force, at the United States embassies in Quito, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nigeria, according to U.S. State Department cables made public by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.

Mario Zamora, formerly head of immigration and the current deputy Security Minister of Costa Rica, told the U.S. embassy in San José in November 2008 that “Ecuador is provoking instability throughout the Americas” with its visa exemptions, according to a cable obtained by Wikileaks and quoted by Spain’s El País newspaper.

The waiving of visa requirements also encouraged a flow of migrants from Cuba. An estimated 70,000 Cuban citizens have come to Ecuador, and between 5,000 and 8,000 have stayed, many of them without the proper documents.

The migration police carried out raids to check passports and visas, following a wave of complaints about insecurity in the western city of Guayaquil, and after the detection in July 2010 of more than 100 marriages of convenience between Ecuadorian and Cuban citizens with fake documents.

“I’ve been in Ecuador for a year,” Raúl Castillo (not his real name) told IPS in a long conversation in a Quito café. “I came with a letter of invitation that I bought in Cuba, through intermediaries, for 2000 convertible Cuban pesos (2,100 dollars).”

Castillo is deeply disillusioned with Cuba, but also about Ecuador: “There’s no future on the island, and I thought I would be able to build a life here in Ecuador, but I haven’t been able to get legal immigrant status, and now I’ve lost my job.”

He said his employer fired him after President Correa included a proposal, in a referendum that is expected to be held in April, that if approved would criminalise the hiring of workers without registering them with the social security system and paying the appropriate contributions.

Why don’t Castillo and other Cubans apply for refugee status, as some 58,000 Colombians have done? “They will never accept Cubans as refugees, because Ecuador is a friend of the Cuban regime, and to accept refugees would reflect badly on that regime,” Castillo said.

Lenin Daza, legal adviser to the Jesuit Service for Refugees and Migrants (SJRM), told IPS: “Immigrants to Ecuador, just like Ecuadorians who have emigrated to the United States or Spain, are going to stay, with or without papers.”

Daza wondered whether it would not be easier and safer to legalise undocumented immigrants en masse.

A member of Correa’s cabinet, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IPS that a mass amnesty or legalisation of migrants “may be safer and easier, but I don’t think it is possible given the current political climate, with the hypersensitivity about public safety.”

For his part, Juan Villalobos, coordinator of public relations for SJRM, told IPS that in Ecuador there is a contradiction between the constitution, which upholds people’s right to mobility, and the legal system and police, which in fact have not changed their practices.

In Villalobos’ view it is right to put a stop to fraudulent marriages of convenience involving Cuban citizens, but he rejects police prejudice when they investigate crimes, and the ignorance shown by health care and education personnel who refuse services to refugees and their children.

“The discretionary powers of civil servants are at odds with the proclamation of universal citizenship,” he said, insisting that “regularising immigrants has the comparative advantages of preventing labour exploitation, and of the state knowing who are in its territory, where they are and what they are doing.”

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