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Ecuador has the largest number of refugees in the region. The expulsion without due process of dozens of Cubans during the last few days shows the enormous risk that asylum seekers face when government authorities have impunity to ignore their obligations under international refugee law.

Detained Cubans in a cell at Quito's court offices building, waiting to be deported or released after deportation hearings, July 9, 2016. © 2016 Juan Pablo Alban

Ecuador’s National Police and immigration officials detained 149 Cubans on July 6. The Cubans had been sleeping in tents in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to protest their inability to obtain a special humanitarian visa from Mexico that would allow them to travel to the US border, and from there seek asylum in the United States.

The Ecuadorean government said that as of July 11, 75 of the Cubans had been sent back to Cuba and 22 had been released and authorized to remain in Ecuador.

The government claimed the detainees’ rights were respected. The Cubans, however, were held for hours in a Quito court office charged with evaluating whether the Cubans had been committing any crime when they were detained, said human rights lawyers who sought to provide them with legal assistance. The Cubans were not allowed to talk to their families or lawyers and were given no food or water, the lawyers said.

Starting the day after their arrest, July 7, judges conducted a series of deportation hearings in which detainees only had a few minutes to present their defense, the lawyers said. Lawyers reported that they were able to talk to the detainees just minutes before the hearings, and that  the detainees included some who had  previously requested asylum, others who requested asylum during the hearing, and some who had legal permits to stay in Ecuador.

The judges determined that tdozens of Cubans should be deported, including asylum seekers. The judicial deportation decisions were sent to Interior Minister José Serrano for his approval. A habeas corpus request filed by human rights lawyers for all detainees was still pending when the deportation decisions were adopted. Ecuadorean human rights defenders documenting the deportations told Human Rights Watch that the Cubans were deported before they had an opportunity to appeal the orders.

Ecuador’s international legal obligations provide robust protections of refugees’ right to seek asylum. The American Convention on Human Rights guarantees “the right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory” and ensures that “in no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country . . . if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated . . . .” This text describes the principle of non-refoulement, a fundamental cornerstone of refugee protection, which is provided for in the Refugee Convention and is widely considered to be part of customary international law.

Human Rights Watch cannot say how many of the expelled Cubans had legitimate claims for asylum—but neither can Ecuador’s government, because it did not give them the fair hearing they are entitled to.

Any measure that runs counter to these obligations violates fundamental rights and should be strongly condemned by regional governments, the Inter-American human rights system, the United Nations office in Quito, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ecuador’s government should not enjoy a blank check to summarily deport asylum seekers who may face persecution and abuse in the countries they fled.

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