Thousands of African migrants are making Ecuador their port of entry into the Americas. But how long will its doors stay open?
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Peter Atempke, a 25-year-old student, has been coming to the San Ysidro border crossing in the Mexican city of Tijuana for two months now. He currently spends his mornings hanging around the gate with other migrants from his home country of Cameroon and a plethora of other African nations, waiting for his number to come up on an improvised list system that will let him go through to ask for asylum at the door of the United States.
Unlike the Central Americans and Mexicans standing in line who can get to the U.S.-Mexico border in a matter of weeks, if not days, Atempke has been traveling since late January. He started much further south than Honduras or El Salvador: in Quito, Ecuador, which is where he entered the Americas. At a time when the U.S. and Mexico are increasingly working to keep migrants — mostly from poor, violence-struck Central American nations — out or send them home, Ecuador is building a reputation as a little-known gateway into the region for those fleeing African nations. But that pro-migrant approach is increasingly under stress, say experts, as Ecuador’s own resources are stretched, and regional powers frown upon open borders.
Thousands of Africans are entering the region via Ecuador because of a visa policy that is lenient compared to those of most nations in the region: Citizens of most African countries can fly into the small South American country without a visa. In 2018, 1,283 people from the African continent arrived and left Ecuador, and this year that flow has grown — in just the first five months of 2019, 2,107 people passed through, according to figures from the country’s interior ministry. Since 2010, just under 15,000 people from Africa have traveled through Ecuador. and Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants enter From Ecuador, the migrants move by land north to Colombia and then through the treacherous rain forests of the Darién Gap to get to Panama. Then they bus through Central America, cross the Suchiate River on rafts from Guatemala into Mexico and arrive again by bus at border cities in Mexico’s north. The number of migrants from African countries seeking asylum in Mexico has doubled since 2014, from 36 to 72 this year so far, and detentions have also spiked.
But most are seeking the American Dream — in the first week of June alone, more than 500 people from Africa were arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection just on the Del Rio part of the border in Texas. That’s compared to 211 African migrants who were detained there over the whole of 2018, according to a CBP media release. Citizens from countries such as Angola, Eritrea, Ghana and Congo were just some of the other migrants waiting in line that morning in Tijuana with Atempke.
“They’re using Quito as a landing place, and then they go up — people just arrive and hitchhike their way up or do a lot of it on foot,” says Alexandra Lamarche, an advocate at Refugees International with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
To be sure, it is the exodus from crisis-struck Venezuela — not Africa — that is posing the biggest challenge to Ecuador. Since 2015, more than 1.2 million Venezuelans have entered Ecuador, which has a population of some 16 million. This influx is straining Ecuador’s resources and institutions, and forcing the administration of President Lenín Moreno to question a historical commitment to providing refuge inscribed in the country’s constitution.
Ecuador’s courts have for now struck down new rules introduced by the Moreno government (which has broken with the hard-left countries in the region, such as Cuba and Venezuela, since Moreno took over from his predecessor, Rafael Correa) that effectively closed the border to most Venezuelans. But the nation remains in churn over immigration, and it’s hard for a government trying to keep out neighbors fleeing a regional crisis to justify embracing distant migrants from Africa for long.
That, combined with potential pressure from other governments such as the U.S. and Mexico — which don’t want to absorb African migrants coming via Ecuador — could soon lead Moreno to impose visa restrictions on them, closing the Quito doorway into Latin America, say observers. “It’s only a matter of time before someone asks them to crack down,” says Lamarche.
Under Correa, any pressure from the U.S. might have served as a red rag to Ecuador. In fact, it was the former president’s brief “open doors” policy, welcoming people from any country a decade ago, that first sparked a wave of African migration to the nation. Correa backtracked partially, reintroducing some restrictions by 2012. Ecuador then further changed its immigration rules due to a 2015 spike in migrants from Cuba who were making their way north through Ecuador. It began requiring visas for Cuban migrants, says Ariel Ruiz Soto, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “Ecuador experienced pressure from regional governments,” says Soto.
Still, Ecuador has among the most progressive institutional mechanisms for the support of migrants — as the court battles against the government show. So it isn’t surprising that with Europe tightening its immigration norms, more and more African migrants are eyeing the South American nation as their pathway to a life in the Americas. “I’ve lost two brothers and they were after me … that’s why I could not stay. That’s why I left,” says Atempke, part of Cameroon’s marginalized, English-speaking minority.
But Moreno is trying to improve his country’s relationship with the U.S. and would find it hard to resist pressure from the Trump administration to limit the entry of African migrants, writes Charles G. Ripley, a senior research fellow at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, in a report this month on the think tank’s website. Moreno, since taking power in 2017, has “done his utmost to undo much of Correa’s legacy,” he says.
Back in Tijuana, Atempke doesn’t know how much longer he will be waiting for his number to be called before he can begin his appeal for asylum in the U.S. But that journey could take much longer for other African refugees like him in the months and years ahead, should Ecuador — more than 3,350 miles to the south — decide to close its borders.