Ecuador ends visa-free entry for Chinese nationals fleeing country

The move will make it harder for anyone hoping to seek political asylum in the United States.
By Lee Heung Yeung for RFA Cantonese
2024.06.19
Ecuador ends visa-free entry for Chinese nationals fleeing country Ecuador’s capital city of Quito is seen in this Oct. 9, 2017 photo.
Henry Romero/Reuters

Authorities in Ecuador have suspended visa-free entry to Chinese nationals starting July 1, citing a jump in arrivals, half of whom either overstay the terms of their entry or leave the country via "irregular routes" to other destinations, making them vulnerable to human traffickers.

Ecuador's capital Quito has become a well-known jumping off point for Chinese nationals planning to make the dangerous journey overland to Mexico prior to claiming political asylum in the United States, a grueling journey known as "walking the line."

The move, which was announced ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, is a heavy blow for the "run" movement -- a buzzword describing the mass exodus of people from China following the lifting of pandemic restrictions in late 2022.

The meme took off during the grueling lockdowns, mass incarceration in quarantine camps and compulsory testing of Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy, which the government ended abruptly, following nationwide protests, in December 2022.

Ecuador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility said it was suspending visa-free entry to Chinese nationals due to "an unusual increase in irregular migratory flows of Chinese citizens ... who would be using Ecuador as a starting point to reach other destinations."

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Chinese migrants navigate thick brush after being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, April 5, 2023. (Reuters)

"In recent months, there has been a worrying increase in migratory flows from China," the Ministry said in a June 18 statement posted to its official X account. 

"50% of these entries have not left through regular routes and within the times established by law," it said, adding that the ban will "[prevent] them from being victims of human trafficking or migrant smuggling."

Chinese border crossings

Since last year, a total of 66,000 Chinese citizens have entered Ecuador, but only 34,000 have left the country through official routes, according to the ministry.

The U.S. government has also reported a huge increase in the number of Chinese citizens seeking political asylum last year.

More than 37,000 Chinese nationals were arrested at the U.S. southern land border in 2023, 10 times the number of the previous year.

There was a small dip in the first three months of 2024, but numbers rebounded to 3,282 in April, according to U.S. government statistics.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said the visa-free arrangement had been in place since August 2016, and had "played an important and positive role in promoting cross-border travel and practical cooperation in various fields between the two countries."

While he didn't directly address the mass exodus of Chinese nationals via Ecuador since the lifting of COVID-19 travel bans in 2022, he said the Chinese government continues to "work with relevant countries to jointly tackle human smuggling activities."

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Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian speaks on June 18, 2024, in Beijing. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC)

"The Chinese government firmly opposes all forms of human smuggling," Lin told a news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

"Chinese law enforcement departments are working with relevant countries to jointly tackle human smuggling activities, repatriate illegal immigrants and maintain a good order in cross-border travel," he said.

Trekking through the rainforest

Performance artist and social media personality Chen Shaotian, also known as Brother Tian, documented his hazardous trek through the Central American rainforest after touching down in Quito in May 2023, via a video sharing platform.

Chen, who has previously served a 14-month jail term for criticizing the Communist Party on social media, said his trip took him and a party of 200 other Chinese citizens through bus stations, border checkpoints, refugee camps and other facilities that have sprung up to serve the constant stream of people heading for the United States through Central America.

Along the way, they were fleeced by corrupt police, paid fees to the "snakehead" people smuggling gangs, who charged extra for a more comfortable trek involving tents and horses, and robbed repeatedly along the way, Chen told RFA Mandarin after arriving in the United States.

Chen said he flew to Turkey, then to Ecuador, before making his way northwards along the coast through Peru and Venezuela.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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