Quito, Ecuador – Jazmin Lema left Ecuador in late August with her two-year-old daughter and her partner, Anthony, hoping to reunite with her mother in New York City.
But as they traveled by bus to Tijuana, a key migration point in northern Mexico, the smuggler they paid to take them to the United States told the group to walk around a checkpoint in the desert of the state of Sonora. to avoid detection.
Lema, who is believed to have suffered from dehydration, died on August 26, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry confirmed this month. The ministry told Al Jazeera that Mexican officials are still determining the exact cause of his death.
“Don’t abandon my son. Take her to my mom in Queens, ”were Lema’s last words, according to a story Anthony shared with 1-800 Migrante, a New York-based group that offers legal services to Ecuadorian migrants and asylum seekers.
Theirs is one of several recent cases of Ecuadorians making dangerous trips to try to reach the United States, migration advocates say, as thousands of people leave the South American nation amid a COVID-19 crisis, economic recession. , corruption and other systemic problems.
Many hope to reach the US, but are often sent back at the Mexican border, where the threat of violence against asylum seekers has increased alongside recent migration figures.
Now, human rights groups are urging Ecuador to do more to curb migration by addressing some of its root causes and finding out what happened to Ecuadorians who disappeared or died trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
A regional branch of the Foreign Ministry confirmed that more than 30 Ecuadorians died between the beginning of the year and August 27 while trying to migrate irregularly, local media reported. “In Ecuador the death of 30 Ecuadorians is felt – and the number continues to increase but nobody knows what happened [to them]”Said William Murillo, director of 1-800 migrants.
Ecuadorians now account for the fourth highest number of encounters with U.S. federal agents on the country’s southern border, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) said, with more than 17,000 cases in each. one of the last two months, compared to 13,000 in June.
But according to data from the Ministry of the Interior of Ecuador, more than 23,000 Ecuadorians traveled to Mexico in August and just over 8,000 returned to the country. The government has recognized that many Ecuadorians do not return after traveling abroad.
In a September 7 speech at a conference on human mobility in the country’s third-largest city, Cuenca, in the Azuay province, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo said that more than 62,000 Ecuadorians have not returned after leaving the country in the first half of 2021..
Murillo at 1-800 Migrante said that the fact that Ecuadorians have not required visas to enter Mexico in recent years “has made many people believe that reaching the United States through Mexico is easy, but that is not the case”.
Like other migrants and asylum seekers, Ecuadorians can pay up to $ 25,000 to use the services of human smugglers, known as coyotes, who promise to get them safely through Mexico. But they are vulnerable to robbery, kidnapping and extortion, and are often abandoned in Mexico, Murillo told Al Jazeera.
Most Ecuadorians leaving for Mexico and the United States come from traditional migration areas in the rural southern Andes provinces of Canar and Azuay, where unemployment rates are high and development lags behind. “From 2018 until now, we have seen an increase in migration [to Mexico] that hasn’t happened in decades [from Ecuador]”Said Murillo.
To try to stop the flow of irregular migration, the Ecuadorian government has adopted a four-pronged plan: boost economic development, open avenues for regular migration, carry out operations against human trafficking, and support Ecuadorians sent back to the country. country from abroad.
The plan includes the participation of public institutions and civil society. But while Vice Minister of Human Mobility Luis Vayas said that the inclusion of migrant organizations would be important, the government has not said which specific groups will be involved in the process.
Vayas told Al Jazeera that the different public institutions and civil society groups will meet again at the end of the year to evaluate the results of the state plan. “The main objective is a decrease in irregular migration, to see a decrease in the numbers, hopefully for December,” said Vayas.
But Soledad Álvarez Velasco, a researcher at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies, said the government’s effort is primarily focused on human smugglers, when instead it should have set its priorities after speaking with migrant communities and migration rights groups. .
Álvarez Velasco also said that the government should provide social assistance to keep Ecuadorians in the country and address the root causes that push many to leave. “It’s not that coyotes put migrants in motion, it’s not that coyotes move migrants, it’s the other way around,” he told Al Jazeera.
On August 20, the Mexican government announced that it would reimpose a visa requirement for Ecuadorians to enter the country as tourists, and said in a statement that the decision was made after an increase in the number of Ecuadorians arriving for reasons. not touristy.
The move caused a rush to the airport and long lines at the Mexican embassy in Ecuador’s capital Quito, before September 4, when the change took effect.
In late August, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso also met with his Mexican counterpart Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City to discuss trade ties between the two countries, as well as migration.
Last week, Guatemala followed Mexico in announcing a return to visas for Ecuadorians after a spike in arrivals. But the new visa requirements are unlikely to deter Ecuadorians from leaving the country or pursuing potentially riskier paths, Murillo said.
In recent weeks, Mexican security and migration authorities have blocked new caravans of mostly Central American, Haitian and Venezuelan migrants, and with a Trump-era order preventing most asylum seekers from entering the US. Known as Title 42 still in effect. Mexico’s northern border is likely to remain dangerous.
Other routes can open through the regional center of Panama, from where Ecuadorians can continue through Central America or the equally unsafe but more expensive passage through the Caribbean.
In July, 1-800 Migrante reported that seven Dominican citizens disappeared trying to cross the strait between the US state of Florida and the Bahamas. A group of five Ecuadorians also disappeared earlier this year by the same route.
“It doesn’t matter if they are detained. It doesn’t matter if they are deported. It doesn’t matter if the police or even the cartels catch them, ”Álvarez Velasco said. “[Migrants] do not cease to deploy new ways to change their living conditions ”.