Refugee Law in Ecuador: An Interview with Liliya Paraketsova, 2017 PRAL Fellow

On March 22, 2018, RefLaw Associate Editor Sam Kulhanek interviewed Liliya Paraketsova, a 2017 Fellow of the Michigan Law Program in Refugee and Asylum Law (PRAL), about her experience working with the Asylum Access regional office for Latin America in Ecuador. What follows is an edited version of that interview. The views and opinions represented are solely Liliya’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Asylum Access.

Sam K.: Can you describe some of the projects you worked on during your time with Asylum Access Latin America and Asylum Access Ecuador?

Liliya P.: At the regional office, I worked on several different projects. One of the projects was a referral program for refugees still displaced within Northern Triangle countries: Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. They are not actually refugees until they leave their home countries under international law, but they meet all the other requirements of refugee status. This project includes NGOs in these Northern Triangle countries. These NGOs screen the displaced people and then recommend they be relocated. Asylum Access coordinates with these NGOs on the ground, and then coordinates with other NGOs and government organizations in potential placement countries to select a placement, usually within Latin America, and ensure a successful transition. This project prioritizes vulnerable people who are less likely to be able to leave their countries without assistance. For example, usually men have more resources, whereas women with children or people with disabilities may not be able to leave but are at a higher risk.

Sam K.: Could you describe your specific role in this project?

Liliya P.: I reviewed the forms, questions, and standards we used to evaluate claims. I also worked on guidelines for applying the refugee exclusion provision. Teenagers in this region in particular have been affected by gangs, so we created guidelines for when this involvement should or should not be a ground for exclusion under the 1951 Refugee Convention. These guidelines included supporting legal arguments.

Sam K.: Were there any other projects of interest that you had the chance to work on?

Liliya P.: Another project I worked on was a round table. In Latin America, stakeholders hosted many round table meetings where they developed refugee standards. I worked on some of these documents because Asylum Access led these round table meetings between NGOs, governments, and multi-government groups like Mercosur and UNASUR.

I also worked on several research projects. For example, two of our lawyers spoke in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights about the crisis in Venezuela. We researched people who are fleeing Venezuela, including the countries they fled to, how these countries reacted, and whether these countries recognized them as refugees. We included arguments for how these countries should react to the influx of Venezuelan migrants.

Sam K.: Could you help us understand some of the major differences in asylum and refugee laws across the countries you studied, such as Ecuador and Mexico?

Liliya P.: Ecuador has very progressive legislation, especially for refugee rights, like the right to work. On the other hand, some of Ecuador’s legislation is still lacking. For example, people only have three months to claim asylum; however, this is an improvement from a previous law that allowed just fifteen days to make a claim. As a result, many people who meet the international refugee definition do not qualify for refugee status because they did not meet the statutory time requirement. But, once someone is recognized as a refugee, they pretty much have all the rights that they are entitled to under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Asylum Access has also been working in Mexico specifically in regard to the freedom of movement. Mexico revised their legislation, but it still does not necessarily give all refugees the rights they are entitled to. In both Mexico and Ecuador, the legislation might not always be enforced, or there might be discrimination problems. For example, what do you do when people are discriminated against by their employers even though they have the right to work?

Sam K.: Are there any other promising areas or developments in refugee law you have seen in the countries you studied?

Liliya P.: The New York Declaration spurred a lot of progress. Asylum Access is very focused on empowering refugees and focusing on rights instead of just providing aid. Throughout their ten years of work in Ecuador, I think they have made good progress, especially in regard to legislation.

In Mexico, Asylum Access is trying to move the government away from detaining refugees by focusing on alternatives to detention like home placements or referral programs, particularly for teenagers or children. It seems like the government is at least somewhat open to change. The reason why the referral program works is because refugees from the Northern Triangle countries are not fleeing to the US or Europe specifically, they are fleeing to go anywhere besides their home country. So, some of the countries they are interested in have relatively stable legislation that would grant them their proper rights. I think that is really promising.

Sam K.: Is there anything that strikes you as a concerning area of refugee law in any of the countries you studied?

Liliya P.: I think in Ecuador there are still issues because the government lacks funding. In all of the countries I studied, I think there is a real problem changing the population’s perspective of refugees. In Ecuador, more than fifty percent of the population is employed in minimum wage jobs making about $375 a month. The government cannot provide for its own citizens, let alone provide refugee services.

Sam K.: What was a highlight of your work in Ecuador?

Liliya P.: A highlight was working on a global policy paper with the director of Asylum Access. In law school or as a new lawyer, you have this desire to fix things and get immediate results. Sometimes policy work doesn’t give immediate results; rather it is a slow process. It was satisfying to work on the global policy paper, observe some of the regional work at the round tables, and see how they have accomplished at least some aspirational steps. It was rewarding to see how higher-level policy could actually affect the world in a greater way than just helping an individual person. It can be frustrating to work in a system that does not work well; policy work allows you to influence the process, at least a little bit.

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