A Fragile Welcome: Ecuador’s Response to the Influx of Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants
The outpouring of Venezuelans driven by the country’s internal crisis has created the second-largest displacement crisis in the world—an estimated 3.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide.1 About 3 million have left the country since 2015, and recent estimates predict that the number of Venezuelans abroad will reach 5 million by the end of 2019.2 Indeed, this exodus is “unprecedented […] in magnitude and speed” in this region.
Almost 1.2 million Venezuelans have entered Ecuador since 2015, most of whom have traveled onward to Peru or other third countries.4 However, there are now some 221,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants remaining in Ecuador, and increasing numbers are choosing to stay.5 The arrival of so many in a short period of time has strained Ecuador’s institutional capacity.
Many Venezuelans lack access to social services, including health, education, housing, and livelihoods. Some have also been victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), discrimination, and xenophobia. As more Venezuelans with increasingly acute needs arrive and choose to stay, Ecuador is struggling to respond.
Ecuador’s response has been inconsistent, reflecting the complex political tensions and institutional challenges it faces. On the one hand, Ecuador has historically been a refugee-hosting country and technically has maintained paths to regularization for Venezuelans. Indeed, the country has some of the most progressive human rights, migration, and asylum laws in the region. These laws include its 2017 Human Mobility Law, which enshrines a strongly principled approach to regularizing the status of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. The law also commits Ecuador to the principle of non-refoulement, non-discrimination, and integration.
However, some policies have undermined the intent of the law, preventing Venezuelans from accessing their rights in practice. These policy changes appear politically motivated, coming in response to surges in arrivals, shifts in public opinion, or a spike in xenophobia. As a result, the UN recently warned that, despite the country’s legal framework, access to regular status is now one of the primary challenges facing Venezuelans in Ecuador.
The consequences for Venezuelans have been devastating. For example, new entry requirements imposed in late 2018 and early 2019 effectively closed the border to many Venezuelans, sometimes separating families. This policy drove many to take irregular routes into the country, sometimes via smugglers and traffickers, thus exposing them to greater risks and denying them the protections that regular status affords. These measures also prevent many Venezuelans from accessing the labor market—a particularly harmful outcome, given that Venezuelans fleeing today have more acute needs than earlier arrivals. Some groups—including women and children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals—are particularly vulnerable.
Ecuador’s policy reversals also have undermined its credibility as a regional leader. Even as it abdicates its role as host of the Quito Process—a regional forum to address the humanitarian response to Venezuelan displacement—it must remain fully engaged and fulfill its Quito commitments. Ecuador must maintain open borders in policy and practice, guarantee protections to those seeking refuge, and continue to foster migrants’ access to social services and livelihoods opportunities.
The situation for Venezuelans in Ecuador has reached a critical juncture. As the government faces growing strains on its institutional capacity, it must choose to stand by its constitution, which protects the rights of migrants and refugees. For its part, the international community must increase funding and operations to enable Ecuador to fulfill these obligations. Indeed, the Ecuador component of the UN funding appeal for the regional Venezuela crisis is only 17 percent funded. As the crisis continues, the need will grow for additional support to provide both humanitarian assistance and longer-term integration and development aid. Ecuador’s fragile welcome must be made stronger.