For years, Ecuador has been the destination for tens of thousands of Colombians seeking international protection. Fifty years after war broke out, an estimated 950 Colombians continue to cross the border into Ecuador each month, fleeing paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, and organized gangs. Through its own refugee processing system, Ecuador has recognized roughly 60,500 Colombian refugees as of 2013 and hosts over 170,000 asylum seekers, 98 percent of whom are Colombian.
Between 2012 and 2014, Ecuador enforced strict refugee laws that led to an estimated rejection rate of 95 percent of Colombian asylum seekers, while in previous years only 10 to 20 percent of individuals and families were denied asylum. Even when recognized as refugees in Ecuador, many Colombians are unable to fulfill their rights to housing, employment, and school because of discrimination.
As the MERCOSUR Visa reaches its two year anniversary in Ecuador and visas begin expiring, many people will be left scrambling to find another way to stay in the country.
An alternative immigration option has now opened up to Colombians, but it presents other challenges. As of April 2014, a new two year temporary visa that includes the right to work—the MERCOSUR Visa—is available to nationals of MERCOSUR countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador). This visa has minimal requirements and Ecuador has waived the standard $230 visa application fee for citizens of Colombia and Paraguay, which makes it very accessible. Individuals can apply for the visa regardless of immigration status, but to renew it, a person must demonstrate financial stability, which is difficult for many Colombian refugees who struggle to find regular and well-paying work.
The MERCOSUR visa may be a good option for some migrants, but it is not sufficient for individuals who fear persecution in their home countries; it will eventually expire regardless of the conditions facing the MERCOSUR visa holder. In the meantime, Colombians who have pursued this visa, because it is free and less burdensome than the refugee process, are registered as migrants, and their protection needs and asylum cases are never documented.
There are now concerns that some of the refugee population who elected to pursue a MERCOSUR visa rather than asylum status have become invisible, the two year expiration date is looming, and they risk losing legal status and may become subject to deportation.
In the meantime, Colombians who have pursued this visa, because it is free and less burdensome than the refugee process, are registered as migrants, and their protection needs and asylum cases are never documented.
Since issuance of these visas began, NGOs providing legal services to refugees in Ecuador have seen a decrease in the numbers of those willing to undergo the daunting task of lodging an asylum claim, in exchange for the much easier MERCOSUR Visa. Many people who have been denied refugee status or denied access to asylum procedures opt for the MERCOSUR Visa, which acts as a stopgap for those who cannot return to Colombia for safety concerns. In essence, this visa buys them two years of safety, but it does not protect against deportation (refoulement) like refugee status does.
As the MERCOSUR Visa reaches its two year anniversary in Ecuador and visas begin expiring, many people will be left scrambling to find another way to stay in the country. For refugees who cannot return home, this situation presents some serious protection concerns. Bound by a law requiring that refugee visas must be applied for within three months and 15 days of entering the country, after residing in Ecuador for two years, many people will have limited visa options to protect them from persecution.
Looking ahead to 2016, Ecuador can expect to see many people in need of protection after the MERCOSUR Visa has expired. Although peace talks among the Colombian government and armed guerrilla groups slowly make progress, there is still no resolution to the conflict. Hopefully, Ecuador will continue to value its commitments under the Refugee Convention and consider the expiration of this visa as a change in personal circumstance — meaning that people of concern can still file an asylum claim. Local and international NGOs working hard on the ground to offer free legal services and advice to asylum seekers must brace themselves for the year to come in which the MERCOSUR Visa band-aid will burst, leaving many asylum seekers again in search of protection.
Tori Duoos is a former intern at Refugees International and a current Master’s student at the Humphrey School of Public Policy & Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Top photo: The Foreign Affairs Ministry in Quito, Ecuador. Credit: Reuters.