When we think of migration and displacement in the Western hemisphere, from our position in the United States, the events that likely first come to mind have to do with migration from Central America to the U.S. Over the summer, stories of groups of Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S. border, the ongoing push for increased border security and the construction of a border wall, and reports of family separation at the border dominated the news. Often, the discussion around migration in the United States revolves around our southern border. Yet this is far from the only illustration of migration in the Western hemisphere.


Perhaps lesser known is the situation in Latin America. In July, I had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador for three weeks to learn about conflict transformation, border disputes, and forced displacement in the region. Among the people I was able to meet and learn from were UN Coordinator and Representative in Ecuador, Arnaud Péral, and Juan Pablo Terminiello from UNHCR in Ecuador.

When we look at a map of where refugees are around the world (from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017 report), some of the previously mentioned major ten host countries stand out. We can see that the top five (Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Iran) are even labeled, while the circles over Germany, Bangladesh, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Jordan are large as well. However, with only a few small dots, Latin America does not seem like a big location for refugees.

UNHCR, map of refugees and refugee-like situations around the world

Yet, when we look at a similar map showing internally displaced persons (IDPs) and those in IDP-like situations, the situation in Latin America is obviously a big one. According to the UNHCR, “An internally displaced person, or IDP, is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never cross an international border.” IDPs often face similar circumstances as refugees but are often in additional danger as they have not crossed a border and therefore are still technically under the protection of their own government. The Colombian armed conflict, which has been ongoing since the 1960s, has produced the world’s largest population of IDPs.

UNHCR, map of IDPs and IDP-like situations around the world

Still, the growing numbers of IDPs in Colombia often result in asylum seekers, refugees, people in refugee-like situations, and undocumented Colombian migrants in neighboring countries. Ecuador hosts the largest number of refugees in South America, about 62,000. Of those, over 90 percent are Colombian. As of the end of 2017, the total population of concern in Ecuador, which includes refugees, refugee-like situations, and asylum seekers, was 145,333.

Juan Pablo Terminiello from the UNHCR in Ecuador explained Ecuador’s situation with three Cs: Continuity, Change, and Complexities.

Continuity referred to the ongoing situation with many Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Despite a peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 and ongoing peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country remains unstable and nearly 7 million Colombians are still displaced. Ecuador receives hundreds of asylum applications from Colombians each month, and with the obvious and undeniable violence in their country, most of them are very strong cases.

The second “C,” Change, referred to the increasing number of Venezuelans entering Ecuador. The political and humanitarian crises in Venezuela have recently led to large numbers of Venezuelans seeking asylum in nearby countries. Notably, Brazil has received many Venezuelans and has recently become the site of the first refugee camps in South America. Ecuador also received 288,000 Venezuelans in 2017 and by June of 2018 they had already received 450,000 this year. According to Terminiello, “The Venezuelan situation is reshaping migration in Ecuador, it is reshaping migration in the Americas, and it is reshaping the way UNHCR works.”

The final “C,” Complexities, referred primarily to the capacity of the asylum system and the refugee status determination (RSD) process. Many scholars and practitioners argue that the legal definition of “refugee” ought to be expanded to account for the changing nature of forced migration. The legal category of “refugee” refers to only those who have fled their country of origin due to a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Therefore, those who flee for other reasons or those who cannot prove that they fit into this narrow definition are not considered refugees and are not entitled to international protection. With increasing forced migration due to natural disasters and climate change, extreme poverty, and other causes, many argue that the refugee definition and legal framework is too narrow. However, according to Terminiello, if the legal framework were to expand, the asylum system and the RSD process would collapse with the claims. Terminiello suggested that instead, more “migratory alternatives” are necessary. While the argument for expanding refugee law to protect more vulnerable people is appealing, Terminiello’s discussion takes into account the practical aspects of the limits of the asylum system.


As we have seen from the cases of Ukraine, West Africa, North Korea, and South America, forced migration rarely fits into a neat box. Real-world situations often blur the lines of legal categories. Rarely do people have just one cause for migrating that allows them to fit nearly into the binary of refugee or economic migrant. Migration flows are often made up of people who fit into various legal categories; perhaps, the “refugee” and the “economic migrant” are at times more similar than the definitions indicate.

With forced migration continuing to increase around the world, we must ask, is it practical to push for expanding the definition of “refugee”? Or should we be looking to develop new systems? Just what kinds of migratory alternatives can be developed to provide legal status and protection to some of the world’s most vulnerable people? With the ever-growing numbers of forcibly displaced people worldwide and the lack of a comprehensive international protection mechanism for those who do not fall into the narrow definition of “refugee,” perhaps this is exactly the kind of conversation we need to be having.


Written by [Refugees Welcome!] Board Member, Denise Muro.

Denise is a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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