The migratory implications of Ecuador’s crisis
The current security crisis will push Ecuadorians and immigrants in the country alike to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
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Ecuador has long been perceived as a relatively peaceful country, providing refuge to displaced Colombians and then Venezuelans over the last pair of decades. But insecurity in the small, coastal country of 18 million has grown in recent years, reaching a crescendo in early 2024 that led President Daniel Noboa to declare a state of emergency amid “internal armed conflict.”
Violence and insecurity are significant drivers of migration and displacement, and Ecuador’s current crisis will have key impacts on hemispheric human mobility that should be considered:
Venezuelans—and, to a certain extent, Colombians—that have settled in Ecuador may look to leave the country
US-bound Ecuadorian migration via the Darien Gap has increased greatly in the last couple of years and will very likely accelerate, particularly as the weather warms
Ecuador’s neighbors must be prepared as the first to respond to displacement from the country
Much as we have seen with other displacement crises both regionally and globally, governments and stakeholders across the Americas must coordinate effectively at a regional level and invest attention and resources in order to develop a successful response providing migrants the protection and support they need.
Immigrants in Ecuador may look to move abroad
Ecuador hosts over 800,000 migrants, including 475,000 Venezuelans and 203,000 Colombians, per UN data. These immigrant communities’ livelihoods and integration are threatened by both the direct challenges crime and violence pose and the indirect impacts caused by scapegoating and unsubstantiated public perceptions of generalized criminality. In December 2023, at least 300 Venezuelans left the canton of Pelileo as a result of marches and threats against the community following the fatal shooting of a police officer by a Venezuelan.
Indeed, Venezuelans’ struggles integrating have already led at least tens of thousands to depart the country, and the current security situation is only exacerbating this trend. According to Ecuadorian government data reported to R4V, the Venezuelan population in Ecuador dropped from 502,214 to 474,945 between May 2022 and June 2023. Multiple civil society members I met with in Quito in March 2023, however, estimated the true number of Venezuelans in Ecuador to have dropped to a range of 200,000 to 300,000 at the time. The present figure is likely fewer still, with Daniel Regalado of Association Venezuela in Ecuador telling En Este País last week that he estimated there are about 200,000 Venezuelans in the country currently.
Remaining migrants in Ecuador will feel added pressure to depart now, and it is highly unlikely that this will result in a return en masse to Venezuela—and, to a certain extent, Colombia. As I wrote last year, at this stage, many Venezuelans are setting their sights on North America and Europe; those returning to Venezuela are doing so temporarily to acquire documents and make any necessary arrangements before departing once more. It is unclear what current migration trends and plans look like for Colombians in the country. Colombians proved more likely than Venezuelans to view their stay in Ecuador as longer-term, according to a 2019 survey explained at Migration Information Source—although this was notably before the large-scale deterioration of the country’s security situation.
Some migrants may have the opportunity to take part in the US Safe Mobility Office program for regional processing, which was launched in Ecuador late last year for certain Colombians, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans already in the country by October 18, 2023. However, the program is not currently open for applications.
Ecuadorian emigration north is on the rise
Over 1.1 million Ecuadorians lived in the diaspora in 2020—a result of primarily economic, job-seeking migration—with the vast majority residing in the United States (41%) and Spain (36%). Ecuadorians today have mainly opted for the US as they face visa restrictions to enter Spain and do not have an accessible land route or many alternative pathways to arrive to the European country; the Ecuadorian population in Spain increased by just 1,908 between 2021 and 2022.
The US’s growth as the standout destination for Ecuadorian emigrants has been highlighted by increasing numbers crossing the treacherous Darien Gap en route north. 57,250 Ecuadorians made the trek in 2023, an increase of 95% from 2022. Others have flown to El Salvador or Nicaragua before continuing on, with a total of 125,259 recorded encounters of Ecuadorians at the US-Mexico border in 2023. An unknown number (smaller than 3,600) have entered the US since November 2023 under a new humanitarian family reunification parole program.
Ecuador’s economy has stumbled in recent years, and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact amid near-constant debt negotiations and efforts to balance budgets. As the security situation has deteriorated and prolonged conflicts among and between criminal groups and the state persist, this emigration will continue and very likely accelerate. This is particularly true as spring approaches, with warmer weather typically accompanying increased numbers arriving at the US border. 39% of Ecuadorians reported intending to emigrate in 2023, an increase of nearly ten percentage points over just five years, according to LAPOP survey data. Furthermore, one survey by CID Gallup from September 2023 found that 46% of Ecuadorians would emigrate if they had the resources to do so.
The regional response is crucial
While many may have their hearts set on the Global North and already have networks and connections in the US and Europe, others will be displaced to cheaper and closer refuge either internally within Ecuador or internationally to neighboring countries in South America. And in contrast to Venezuela’s diaspora across Latin America, Ecuadorians have an easier time with already built-in access to regularization pathways in many of their neighboring countries through the Andean Community, a regional bloc composed of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
The hope is that this can be a temporary displacement and that those that leave may then come home. The last thing anyone wants to see is a protracted internal conflict that results in longer-term displacement, as we have seen in Colombia—but the region should be ready if that becomes the case. As InSight Crime has noted, the security outlook in the country is dire, and a sustainable, long-term response has yet to be articulated. It is difficult to see an exit strategy that will quickly and effectively solve the crisis at hand.
As this dynamic situation continues to evolve, it is critical that regional bodies develop mechanisms to track and respond to this displacement and migration. Data on how many migrants are crossing the Ecuador-Colombia and Ecuador-Peru border (and beyond)—whether regularly or irregularly—should be recorded and widely shared with government, civil society, and multilateral partners. The more public and transparent these processes are, the better. Specific data is lacking, but sources on the ground on either border report displacement is ongoing similar to recent months, with 5,162 more Ecuadorians leaving the country by land borders than entering during the month of December 2023, according to data from Ecuador’s official ports of entry. Mobilizing the resources necessary to receive and attend to these migrants is only possible when the required actors have the information to act. Likewise, migrants themselves may not know what rights they may have or what regularization pathways exist, and proactively working to share this information would be a simple but constructive initiative.
Last week, the Andean Community established a novel network focused on increasing coordination for border security and enforcement, aiming to contain Ecuador’s violence and counter transnational criminal groups. The bloc’s members have militarized their borders and deployed additional surveillance, with Peru also announcing a 60-day state of emergency. The security focus at this moment is an understandable reaction, but it is crucial that regional actors do not lose sight of the migratory implications of Ecuador's crisis that must also be addressed. Preparing and acting now, rather than later, will best ensure that migrants receive the protection and support they need to integrate should their displacement last beyond the short-term.
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