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Eight months ago, Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange, only two months after he took refuge in its London embassy. In the meantime, I have received a number of requests for my opinion about "Ecuador's asylum record". Refugee status, my area of expertise, is very different from the diplomatic asylum regime Assange requested - but the comparison highlights an important difference: applying for asylum in Ecuador is not nearly as easy as in London if you are a famous public figure. 

In London, Assange appealed to a regime built on the Latin American tradition of diplomatic asylum set up for high-profile political figures. UNHCR reports tens of thousands of people in Ecuador are currently applying for asylum under an international refugee protection system based on the

Eight months ago, Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange, only two months after he took refuge in its London embassy. In the meantime, I have received a number of requests for my opinion about "Ecuador's asylum record". Refugee status, my area of expertise, is very different from the diplomatic asylum regime Assange requested - but the comparison highlights an important difference: applying for asylum in Ecuador is not nearly as easy as in London if you are a famous public figure. 

In London, Assange appealed to a regime built on the Latin American tradition of diplomatic asylum set up for high-profile political figures. UNHCR reports that tens of thousands of people in Ecuador are currently applying for asylum under an international refugee protection system based on the 1951 Refugee Convention, designed to host people persecuted not just due to their political beliefs, but also what they are imputed to believe, their race, nationality, religion or belonging to a persecuted social group. For many of these anonymous refugees it can take over a year to have their case heard and processed. 

Last summer, within days of World Refugee Day, a presidential decree introduced new obstacles for refugees trying to reach safety in Ecuador. Under the new regulations, those displaced into Ecuadorian soil must apply for refugee status with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within 15 days. The new law also restricts the refugee definition to leave out those fleeing generalised violence and conflict. This limitation will place an overwhelming burden on refugees and will effectively prevent those who are most vulnerable from rebuilding their lives.  

Refugee status

Earlier this year, I saw firsthand how having the opportunity to apply for refugee status can make a difference in someone's life. In the Ecuadorian border town of San Lorenzo I first met Juan, a Colombian refugee who has been in Ecuador for the past four years. "Leaving my finca was very sad - I left behind everything I worked for all my life," he said, longing for what is left north of where we stood. "Once in Ecuador, things got better after I got my refugee visa and found a job in a palm plantation." 

Juan was granted asylum as a refugee three years ago. Back then, the Ecuadorian government, with support from UNHCR, organised a large scale exercise with mobile brigades to register and offer protection to invisible refugees along the border. He wishes some of his compatriots now had the same access. "Without [the registration brigade], I would still be jobless, or offering my labour for pennies to survive."  

Later that day, I met Doris, who had crossed the border to San Lorenzo a mere five days before. Still scared and unsure of who she can trust, Doris made her brief remarks: "I just learned I need to travel four hours south to apply for a visa, but I simply can't take the risk of being stopped on the highway, paying a bribe, or being sent back." The idea of returning brings terror to her eyes - what she saw in Colombia prompted her to uproot from her home with only the clothes on her back. 

 Neighbours back Ecuador in Assange saga

At this point, her options are limited - Ecuador has significantly reduced the number of brigades and faces a heavy backlog along the border from all the new arrivals that have not been registered. Even if Doris risks the journey to the provincial capital, there is no guarantee she will get registered. She has heard rumours that they only give a dozen appointments per day - that week, a local church estimated 300 new arrivals from across the border. "I have a toddler and a baby, my main priority now is finding someone charitable that will let us sleep under a roof."  

Applying for asylum

Under the circumstances, applying for asylum within the first 15 days of her arrival is virtually impossible for Doris. Much of Ecuador's northern border lacks border controls, making it impossible for refugees to prove the date when they entered the country. Once arrived, refugees' first priorities are often to find shelter, food and re-grouping their families, those who are most vulnerable are unlikely to be in a financial position to travel overland to apply for status. 

To be fair, the new law does provide for the option for refugees to apply for status with the Ministry of Interior, Armed Forces or National Police force. Yet, it will take time and extended training to build trust among the refugee community and authorities who are responsible for deportation and law enforcement. Civil society is already working on a rapid response partnership with authorities along the northern government. 

In 2008, Ecuadorian elected assembly members chose to enshrine the rights of refugees to rebuild their lives in the new Constitution. Having experienced firsthand the development, progress and challenges of Ecuador's growing refugee protection system, I can categorically say that much of it was built through the efforts of committed young civil servants and civil society members working together. Now, Ecuador faces the opportunity of making a real difference in the lives thousands of refugees. 

Will my compatriots rise in the Ecuadorian tradition of hospitality to the challenge of making protection a real option for the most vulnerable? Or, will we react with a security-based approach that harms those who are most in need? I hope we take the high road and build a territorial asylum system where those like Doris and Juan have the same fair access to requesting asylum that Assange had when he walked through the doors of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter is currently the Overseas Operations Director of Asylum Access, an international NGO dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Asia, Africa and Latin America. An accidental techie, she writes and lectures about social entrepreneurship, the rights of those in the fringes of society, and non-profit management. She holds a Master's degree from UC Berkeley and an LLM from University of Oxford. She lives in Quito, Ecuador.

Follow her on Twitter: @michelleac1

Source: Al Jazeera