Venezuelans flee violence in Ecuador

Despite worsening conditions in their home country, growing xenophobia is causing many to consider moving back home to Venezuela. Kimberley Brown reports.

A man cries in after an angry mob stole his belongings. Photo by Jonatan Rosas.

Ricardo Perez says he feels scared walking down the streets of Quito these days. He can’t wait to get back to his home in Venezuela. The 24-year-old migrant says he has long received dirty looks, been called names for being Venezuelan, and told to go home. Tensions hit a peak last week when he arrived to his apartment after work one night and saw all of his belongings thrown out into the street.

The next day, Perez went straight to the Venezuelan consulate to sign up for the country’s repatriation program and catch the next flight to Caracas.

‘I felt fear and frustration. I came here to work and help my family,’ Perez told New Internationalist outside the consulate, among dozens of other Venezuelans also hoping to return.

‘But things are easier in Venezuela,’ he said, adding ‘at least I have the warmth of my family there.’

Hundreds of Venezuelans rushed to the consulate last week to take advantage of the government’s repatriation plan, while others fled to Peru. This outflow began after a Venezuelan man killed his Ecuadorian girlfriend in the street one Saturday night. This prompted the government to create tighter border controls against Venezuelans and many locals responded with violence against the migrants.

Those heading back to Venezuela said they were concerned about the fragile political state of their country, but said they would rather be at home.

‘We don’t want Venezuelans here’

The tensions started on January 19th, when a man known as Yordy Rafael LG killed his girlfriend Diana Carolina Ramírez, who was three months pregnant, in the small northern city of Ibarra, Imbabura. Many say the tragedy was avoidable, since LG held his girlfriend hostage on the street for at least 90 minutes before he stabbed her, with police standing nearby. LG has since been detained.

President Lenin Moreno instantly responded to the event by announcing he would send more brigades into the streets and work places to control the Venezuelan population. increase restrictions for Venezuelans entering the country.

Human rights workers denounced Moreno’s response, which would only ‘increase xenophobia,’ said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a tweet. He also warned President Moreno not to ‘propagate collective hysteria.’

Increasing Xenophobia

Dozens of people took to the streets of Ibarra the night after the murder to hunt down Venezuelans in the name of ‘justice.’ Angry mobs chased the migrants down the streets, in some cases hitting anyone nearby, including women and children. Some groups also entered apartment buildings where they knew Venezuelans lived, stole their clothes, mattresses and other belongings and burnt them in the street.

Jesus Sanchez, a Venezuelan man who has been living and working in Ibarra for over a year, says he and six other friends hid in the small bedroom in their apartment when they heard the mob coming. They barricaded the door shut, as angry men pounded on the other side and ransacked their apartment. Sanchez said he could hear people breaking things and yelling, ‘We’re going to kill you!’ ‘Venezuelan bastards! We don’t want you here!’ ‘Go home!’

Video footage from that night show men throwing items off of Sanchez’ balcony onto the street, to a large cheering crowd, and police standing nearby watching the events.

‘We didn’t know what could happen,’ Sanchez told New Internationalist from his apartment, among his scattered and broken belongings.

‘There were two women with us and two kids… we put them in the closet, and told them to stay there silently and if there were any problems they should stay there. And well, we waited for the attack,’ he says, adding that they were terrified.

Daniel Garcia is sitting on the mattress he sleeps on after looters took his things. Photo by Jonatan Rosas.

Thankfully, two Ecuadorian women eventually spoke up and demanded police do something to end the violence, says Sanchez.

None of the 10 Venezuelan families who live in the same apartment complex left the building the next day, out of fear.

Many Venezuelans in Ibarra have since lost their jobs, and locals refuse to buy from Venezuelan street vendors, who normally line the downtown plazas. Many of the migrants are still afraid to walk in the streets. Similar violence has been repeating in cities across the country.

At a small protest Monday night, local residents continued to demand that Venezuelans leave the country. One protester by the name of Jonatan says, ‘we don’t want Venezuelans here, because it affects our work.’ Businesses tend to hire Venezuelans over Ecuadorians because they know they can pay the migrants less, he says.

Over 250,000 Venezuelans live in Ecuador, out of the over 3 million who have fled their country’s economic crisis since 2015. Hundreds of thousands more continue to cross through Ecuador on their way to Peru or Chile. This massive migration has put pressure on local economies and has spurred growing resistance.

A Venezuelan receives donations from an Ecuadorian family. Photo by Jonatan Rosas.

The Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has for months been promoting a ‘Return to the Fatherland’ program, whereby the government sponsors flights to bring back migrants abroad who want to return. Though it’s been highly criticized as a public relations stunt, hundreds of Venezuelans in Ecuador have been applying over the last week. Three flights went to Caracas Wednesday, and over 300 Venezuelans flew back Saturday.

No arrests have been made for the aggression in Ibarra last Sunday, but according to Silva Juma, the district attorney of Imbabura, investigations are underway for possible hate crimes.

Tighter Border Controls

Saturday, President Moreno implemented extra border controls for Venezuelans, now requiring that they show a criminal record check, as well as their passport or personal identification to enter the country. The move surprised the hundreds of people who continue to arrive daily at Rumichaca, the main border crossing between Colombia and Ecuador

Gabriela Hadathy, an official with the Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion in Ibarra, says tighter entry requirements are dangerous. Many people don’t even have passports, let alone other official documents. If they are not allowed to enter the country legally, they’ll enter as irregulars which leaves them more vulnerable to traffickers and other human rights violations.

‘This especially affects women and adolescents who travel alone,’ says Hadathy, ‘and we’ve seen a lot of these cases.’

A Venezuelan waits in line to apostille a letter proving that he does not have a criminal background. Photo by Jonatan Rosas.

Perez, who was applying to go back to Venezuela, says he knows he’s entering a precarious situation in his country, especially after thousands of citizens and several international governments unsuccessfully tried to oust President Nicolas Maduro last week. Tensions have since been rising between President Maduro and the government of the United States, who has been leading these efforts.

‘Something has to change, but we’re hopeful,’ said Perez, ‘Obviously I’m worried, but at least I’ll be at home.’