The Cuban migrant community in Ecuador has lived an intense week, after hundreds camped out at a Quito park were evicted by the National Police and about 150 were arrested.
The government announced this week that it would send back 47 Cubans, which would bring the total of those returned to the island since Saturday to 122 — a decision that experts have branded as illegal.
The first group of Cubans was taken to Quito's Tababela airport early Saturdayand flown to Cuba aboard an Ecuadorean military aircraft. Another group was sent back in the same way on Monday even though human rights lawyers had filed a habeas corpus request on behalf of the migrants.
The situation of the migrants in Quito had already become tense several weeks before the removals. Several dozen had camped in front of the Mexican embassy, to ask for an airlift from Ecuador to Mexico so they could continue their trek to the United States — much like another airlift that helped Cubans stranded in Costa Rica and Panama earlier this year. The migrants also demonstrated in front of the Cuban and U.S. embassies, marched and wrote letters seeking a safe way of reaching the United States.
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Instead of dispelling the tensions, however, the government of President Rafael Correa has become the focus of criticisms from outraged human rights activists and lawyers for the Cuban migrants who are seeking an investigation by international organizations.
Following is a chronology of how the situation developed.
Wednesday, July 6: In an early morning raid, National Police dismantled a tent camp established by hundreds of Cubans in the El Arbolito park in Quito. Human rights advocates complained the raid was violent and that the Cubans, including women and children, were beaten and dragged. Efraín Sánchez Mateo, leader of the Cubans, was sentenced to five days in jail for attacking a policeman during the operation.
Days earlier, the Cubans had camped in front of the Mexican embassy, but had been evicted and moved to the La Carolina Park and still later to El Arbolito. The migrants had requested and obtained a permit for the camp from the Ministry of Social Inclusion. A municipal official declared that about 600 Cubans had camped in El Arbolito in “a collective action, a protest,” and that the municipality had provided them with a safe place “so they would not be intimidated by the police.”
“Claiming it was an immigration check, an excessive police operation that included special units and riot vehicles evicted the people, without any previous warning, at dawn, forcing them to come out of the tents where they were sleeping and seizing all their possessions (tents, blankets, eating utensils, clothes, identity documents and passports,” said a statement by Francisco Hurtado, an Ecuadorean human rights activist and member of the Coalition for Migration and Refuge.
Interior Minister José Serrano reported after the eviction that 63 Cubans had been detained for reviews of their migration status in the Flagrant Unit, created to handle crimes swiftly. Serrano added that Cubans with “irregular status” would be deported to Cuba “immediately, after the legal process.”
Human rights activists reported, however, that about 150 Cubans had been detained and transferred to the Flagrant Unit aboard five buses.
Later the same day, defense attorneys and human rights activists contacted the Cubans detained at the Flagrant Unit and counted about 150, including five minors — one with a broken arm — and two pregnant women.
The lawyers demanded the immediate release of the detainees and filed a habeas corpus appeal before the Criminal Guarantees Tribunal in Quito to halt the deportation process. They also accused the Ecuadorean government of human rights violations. The deportation process nevertheless started the next day, when authorities also released 13 Cubans, including all the minors. Hurtado said all the Cubans released were in Ecuador legally, “which proves that, strictly speaking, it was never an immigration check.”
A team of human rights attorneys complained of several violations during the deportation hearings, alleging that they did not have sufficient time to talk to their clients, received police reports at the last minute and that police had refused to acknowledge that the Cubans had been detained in an arbitrary manner.
They proceedings also did not set a date for the habeas corpus hearing, which should have been held within 24 hours under Ecuadorean law. “The judges and authorities in general make no mention of Cubans who have the right to seek asylum in Ecuador,” Hurtado wrote.
One group of Cubans was taken to the Hotel Carrión in Quito, a detention facility for foreigners who are about to be deported.
Deportation — or collective expulsion?
Saturday, July 9: Twenty Cuban men and nine women were transferred by National Police at dawn to the Tababela airport in Quito. They were flown to Cuba aboard an Ecuadorean military aircraft, guarded by 25 police agents. An Interior Ministry statement said the 29 were migrants “who did not legally justify their stay in Ecuador” and that the deportation was carried out “with total respect for their human rights.”
Defense Attorney Juan Pablo Albán vigorously accused authorities of violating the human rights of the migrants and branded their removal as a “collective expulsion.” He said it amounted to “an act of persecution” and “a crime against humanity” and noted that at the time of the removals, rulings blocking the deportations of some of the Cubans had been issued already.
Another group of 31 Cuban men and 15 women was deported early Monday morning, sparking a wave of criticisms and protests in Ecuador and abroad.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, wrote that under international agreements Ecuador could not “forcibly return … a refugee to a place where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”
The Ombudsman's Office of the Ecuadorean government also issued a statement on the Cubans case, saying it was concerned because “legal decisions on deportations of people can be appealed on the administrative side, as established by Articles 28 and 29 of the Law on Migration. The Ombudsman's Office believes these articles are unconstitutional because they contradict the principle of judicial independence established in the constitution.”
It urged the Interior Ministry to stop such changes in jurisdiction until the country's Constitutional Court can resolve the contradiction.
Tuesday, July 12: Cubans and Ecuadorans staged a “sit-in against xenophobia” along Quito's 10 de Agosto Avenue at 3 pm, at the same time the Criminal Guarantees Tribunal started its hearing on the habeas corpus request.
“Almost 13 hours later, the request was denied. It would seem that this most deplorable process of recent weeks is now closed. But it's not. The ruling extends and justifies — from several angles — xenophobia, illegal processes, violence and the worst political clumsiness,” said Ailynn Torres Santana, a Cuba-born professor who lives in Quito.
“The Ecuadoran government has shown its disregard for the Constitution, and the Cuban news media, with its official communiques, has not been any better,” she added. “ Meanwhile, on the 10 de Agosto Avenue yesterday, citizens from different countries chanted 'We Ecuadorans are also migrants,' 'We are migrants, not criminals,' 'Justice' and 'Rule of Law.'”
The country's biggest confederation of labor unions, known as CEDOCUT, also issued a statement supporting the Cuban migrants and branding the Correa government's actions as “cruel and illegal.”
“This is unprecedented and despicable, something that has never happened before in the history of our country. It will be written in the pages of national shame as one of the most nefarious canards that any government has adopted against a group of human beings who sought assistance and solidarity,” said CEDOCUT president Mesías Tatamuez.
“It has become evident to the international community that Ecuador does not have an independent judiciary, because the decisions of judges to expel the Cubans are reviewed by the [executive branch] … ; that the Universal Declaration of Human rights is not respected, and neither are the Constitution or international treaties on refugees and asylum seekers that protect those citizens at all times,” he added.
After their return to Havana, some of the Cubans went to the U.S. Embassy to apply for political asylum. They were briefly questioned by Cuban police as they left the mission, Carlos Salazar told the independent news portal 14ymedio. Salazar's wife remained in Ecuador.
“We were in a detention center known as Flagrant, where we spent 72 hours in a basement garage. We slept on the floor. From there, they put us on a bus. But we could not take telephones or anything,” he said. “The first time we saw our lawyers was when we walked into the hearing, but they were not allowed to even come close to us to talk to us. Before the ruling was known they put us on a plane and after a refueling stop it landed in Havana and docked at Terminal 5 at the José Martí Airport.”
The Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry issued a statement confirming the deportations and insisting that all parties had respected “the procedural guarantees established for these cases” and “existing international regulations.”
The statement also blamed the U.S. government “for the situation created with the undocumented Cuban migrants in the region … encouraged by the wet-foot/dry-foot policy the parole program for Cuban medical professionals and the Cuban Adjustment Act.”