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July 30, 2012

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Updates From the Field — Refugee Livelihoods in Ecuador

by Asylum Access

Photo by Nitsan Tal

Anna Chen spent a year working for Asylum Access in Quito, Ecuador. In March 2012, she travelled with volunteer photographer Nitsan Tal to document the inspiring lives of our refugee clients. 

By: Anna Chen. 

In a home virtually empty of furniture, Maria* shows me the wood boards lying among sawdust, glue, paint and work tools. Donning a white face mask, she squats down and begins to saw at a board. These are the first steps of making what will become large wooden mirror frames, a craft she learned from the internet. Each takes several hours to complete, including embellishing the frames with ornate golden decorations. But this is the easy bit.

Maria tells me the most difficult part is getting people to buy them off the streets of Quito, where she peddles them for about USD10 apiece. With modest profit margins, Maria must sell dozens to feed her family of four every month.

Like Maria, many refugees in Ecuador are forced to find unconventional and creative means to make ends meet. Ecuadorian law has only recently upheld refugees’ right to safe and lawful employment, in accordance with international refugee law standards. The right to work was included in the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution, but reality has not caught up with legal reform. Employers remain unaware of refugee labor rights, refugees still encounter discrimination, and the few organizations working with refugee issues lack the capacity to focus significant resources on refugee labor issues.

This poses a daily challenge for the estimated 250,000 mostly Colombian refugees living in Ecuador. “Until refugees are given a visa, they cannot work legally. This can take up to 18 months. And leaves women and girls especially vulnerable,” the narrator tells us in a video by the VJ Movement (see below). They interview young women in Lago Agrio, near the border with Colombia, who say they find it difficult to get a job. As prostitution offers relatively accessible work and doesn’t discriminate, the narrator suggests many refugee women might one day be forced to prostitute themselves for a mere USD10. Alarmingly, even minors and thirteen-year-olds are seen as potential sex workers (see 04:05 in the video).

Maria works on a mirror frame using skills she learnt from the internet. (Photo by Nitsan Tal)

In protracted refugee situations like these, empowering refugees to access safe and lawful employment is particularly critical. The neighboring Colombian conflict has destabilized communities for about 40 years, forcing many to flee their homes and seek a future elsewhere.

Refugees have a very real need for safety and the means to rebuild their lives meaningfully through dignified work. With a safe return to Colombia unlikely in the near future, Ecuador’s improved refugee labor rights would give Maria’s children a hopeful future. It is now up to civil society groups, employers, and local government institutions to ensure that these rights are upheld in practice.

For more information about refugees’ experience with the right to work in Ecuador, refer to Asylum Access’s 2011 report, “To Have Work is To Have Life”.

*Not her real name. Photos have been published with Maria’s permission. 

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