Diving Deeper: Examples from Ecuador, Thailand, and Tanzania
Ecuador adopted a new constitution in September 2008, about a year after Asylum Access opened its doors there. Under the new constitution, all people, and even non-person entities (e.g., the environment), enjoy a wide array of rights. Refugee children enjoy equal rights to education and other opportunities, and refugee parents (and other adult refugees) can lawfully work on an equal basis with Ecuadorian nationals (Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador 2008, 9, 33).
Nonetheless, Ecuador is home to at least 54,000 recognized refugees and an estimated 68,000 or more unrecognized refugees (UNHCR 2014). Enforcing the new constitutional rights on an individual basis— that is, providing legal counsel to every refugee child turned away from a school or asked to pay more at a hospital than a national child, or representing every refugee parent whose employer paid her less than her Ecuadorian coworkers—was clearly impractical. Asylum Access needed tools that could enforce constitutional rights for large groups of refugees at one time.
The team began looking for ways to engage in strategic litigation—to use legal representation in such a way that the efforts impacted more than one refugee or one refugee family. For example, through a submission to the Inter-American Commission, Asylum Access sought the issuance of “cautionary measures” warning the Ecuadorian government that it was in danger of violating its international legal obligations by failing to effectively safeguard the rights of refugees. In this instance, failing to protect the rights of refugee women and girls through an effective policy response to gender-based violence.
Although the cautionary measures directly addressed only a single case, they brought the pressure of international scrutiny, increasing the government’s political will to improve enforcement of refugees’ rights. This led to increased dialogue between Asylum Access and government entities responsible for enforcing the law, including the Ministry of Justice, allowing for more effective influence on how the government implemented its legal obligation to ensure everyone in Ecuador enjoyed equal protection of the law.
Improvements such as this have made Ecuador a country where refugees can be integrated locally in a meaningful way. Many of Asylum Access’s refugee clients have been successful in asserting their rights in ways that allow them to effectively integrate and build new lives in Ecuador. Numerous refugees even have access to citizenship. Indeed, one staff member, a refugee from Colombia, recently accepted Ecuadorian citizenship after some soul-searching: “I’m still a refugee. But with citizenship, I can travel and make my voice heard, so I can do more to advocate for refugee rights,” she told me.