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ECUADOR: Migrants Uprooted Twice

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Jan 24 2011 (IPS) - Ecuadorean immigrants have been put in an even more vulnerable position by the lingering economic crisis in the industrialised world, especially in Spain and the United States, the main destinations for migrants from Latin America.

This year will be decisive for Latin Americans living in those two countries, but not so much because of a massive return by migrants to their countries of origin or to the decline in remittances sent back to their families — phenomena discussed by observers since the crisis broke out in the United States in 2008.

Experts who spoke to IPS said the crucial situation has to do with the increase in vulnerability of migrants, a greater loss of rights and more sacrifices demanded of them. In addition, the phenomenon of relatives joining other family members abroad will slow down, they said.

“The difficulties that (the Spanish and U.S.) economies are experiencing aggravate the vulnerability of Latin Americans living there, regardless of their immigration status, as well as that of the millions of Latin Americans who receive remittances back home,” Nelsy Lizarazo, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the World Social Forum on Migrations, told IPS.

Lizarazo also said that she perceives “a more clear intention to return, on the part of immigrants abroad.” And that desire is even shared, she added, “by members of young generations born overseas or who left very young, from Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia or Central America.

“That wasn’t the case until 2009, but over the last year, they have felt that doors have been closing on them,” she said.

For her part, Lorena Escudero, minister of the National Secretariat for Migrants (SENAMI), told IPS that “the crisis of capitalism in the countries of the North has triggered a gradual and significant — but not massive — return of Ecuadoreans, especially from Spain. In 2011, we expect more to return, but it won’t be an exodus.”

SENAMI was created by the government of President Rafael Correa, a left-leaning economist who took office in January 2007 and promised during his election campaign to reach out to migrants abroad.

An estimated three million Ecuadoreans currently live overseas, out of a total population of 14 million. Although Ecuadoreans have been migrating to the United States and other countries since the 1970s, the numbers going abroad began to soar in the 1990s, a decade marked by economic and political turbulence in this South American country, and the proportion heading to Spain surged.

The remittances sent home by migrants have become a mainstay of the economy, and are second only to oil revenue as a source of foreign exchange for Ecuador.

Escudero said the crisis in Europe will last a while longer. And whereas overall unemployment in Spain is 20 percent, it stands at “more than 28 percent for Latin American immigrants, among whom the half a million Ecuadoreans form the largest group,” she said.

The industries hit hardest by the rise in unemployment, she noted, are the ones where the largest numbers of Ecuadorean workers are employed, like construction and services.

On the ground floor of the building where SENAMI has its offices, a young couple with a baby are waiting their turn. “We came to find out about the loan we asked for,” Joselino Mayorga told IPS. He said they came back from Spain “where things didn’t go well for us; both of us were fired.”

Mayorga applied for a loan from SENAMI’s “Migrant Bank”, a government initiative that is not actually a bank, but a 12 million dollar trust set up to extend soft loans to returning immigrants through qualified financial institutions. So far, 1,700 credits have been granted.

The Mayorgas returned earlier than they had planned. After just five years in Spain, they accepted the Spanish government’s facilitated return programme, which includes one year of unemployment benefits in two payments, on the condition that they return to their home countries.

“Returning is a right,” Escudero said. “SENAMI isn’t inducing Ecuadoreans to return, nor are we in alliance with European countries to facilitate their expulsion of our people.

“We have neither a paternalistic nor a welfare-oriented focus,” she added. “What we do is give a hand to those who want to exercise their right to return to their homeland.”

Under the “Welcome Home” programme, returning migrants are offered a series of incentives: low-interest loans, tax exemptions and grants of seed money to start up new businesses, a waiver on duties for household furnishings and other belongings they bring home, one-way plane tickets, and financial assistance to purchase or build a home.

But only 14,000 families have taken advantage of the SENAMI programme to return to Ecuador since 2008.

“Given the fact that half a million Ecuadoreans live in Spain alone, that is a small number,” the minister said. “But our most important effort is establishing ties and reaching out through the Casas Ecuatorianas that we operate abroad.”

It is in the Casas centres and the government’s diplomatic offices and consulates that the growing vulnerability and problems of migrants has been noted. “But they find a way to survive, even in the midst of the crisis,” Escudero stressed.

The economic troubles in the industrialised world do not seem to automatically drive immigrants to return home. “Although economic questions do play a decisive role when it comes to leaving your country, once you are installed in another country, a new world opens up to migrants,” Lizarazo said.

She pointed out that children’s ties to their new country and culture, as well as opportunities for their education and health care available in developed countries, are strong motivations for families to stay.

In addition, “for women, who make up a majority of Ecuadorean migrants in Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, it is a great chance to find freedom and autonomy,” she said.

But, she added, “if the opportunities are shut off, the dilemmas of finding solutions or weighing whether the conditions are right for a return to the homeland emerge.”

Escudero concurred, and also mentioned the problems with mortgages. “Financial institutions in Spain are not giving migrants a break,” she said. “Many homes have already been foreclosed on, and in some cases part of the family has returned. If the ones who stayed behind don’t find work soon, they will return to the country this year.

“People are admirable,” she said. “Some have chosen to go to work in Germany, Switzerland or the Nordic countries, and now there are flows of remittances from those countries to Spain, where many have their families, on top of the traditional money orders to relatives in Ecuador.”

Lizarazo said the critical situation faced by migrants in the midst of the crisis in the industrialised North and the proposals for urgently needed public policies and measures to protect them were discussed at the Fourth World Social Forum on Migration held in October in Quito.

The conclusions from that gathering have been presented in different meetings and conferences, and will be shared at the next World Social Forum, to run Feb. 6-11 in Dakar.

The World Assembly of Migrants will be held Feb. 2-4 on the Senegalese island of Gorée, ahead of the annual global civil society meeting in the country’s capital.

The Assembly is writing a World Charter for Migrants, a commitment to global principles like freedom of movement and choice of residence.

The Charter, an initiative of a collective of migrant organisations, began to emerge in 2006, and the text has been discussed over the Internet and in physical meetings, by migrant groups and individuals alike.

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