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by Laura Dixon

Ali Al-Ridha knew it was time to flee Iraq when the local Shia militia started asking friends and family about him.

They had found out he’d lost his faith. If they found him, he feared he’d be beheaded. So he fled, not even pausing to pack his things.

He travelled to Moscow, where he Googled “countries that accept Arabic Muslims without a visa”. The best option? Ecuador.

Like that of other migrants on this new westward migration, across the Atlantic, Al-Ridha’s route was circuitous. Some tell of journeys through as many as six countries: from West Africa or Afghanistan to Turkey or Dubai, through Brazil, criss-crossing continents to reach the Americas. Al-Ridha flew first 3,200 kilometres north to Russia, then more than 9,000 west to Havana, Cuba. From there, he took a plane to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, where he entered on a tourist visa before claiming asylum.

Chima Okoroafor, 35, immigrant from Nigeria, leaving the african restaurant that became a meeting point for africans in Quito, Ecuador, on 13 June of 2017. Okoroafor speaks seven languages. To make his life in Ecuador teach english and sell "everything you need". (Photo by Mauro Pimentel)

Grace Njoh, 25, immigrant from Cameroon, works baking fish in an African restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, on 13 June of 2017. Grace has a law degree from Cameroon but can't work as lawyer in Ecuador. She has settled in Ecuador after her Canadian visa was denied in the airport. It happens a one year ago. Two people who came with her were turned back to Cameroon. When she is not working, goes to an Ecuadorian pentecostal church services. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel)

With the crisis in the Mediterranean showing no sign of letting up and 2016 the deadliest year for crossings on record, a number of economic migrants and asylum seekers are looking for new escape routes from misery. Instead of paying thousands of dollars to be smuggled to Europe on a unseaworthy dinghy, they fly to Latin America. Some then embark on a perilous path north through the Colombian jungle and crime-ravaged Central America, bound for the United States and Canada.

In 2008, Ecuador passed a new constitution which created an “open door” policy for all foreign visitors. From one day to the next, no-one needed a visa to enter, turning Ecuador from a little known dot on the South American map to a key destination for people who wanted to travel to or through the Americas.

Although visa requirements were soon reinstated for some countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia) Ecuador maintains some the world’s most liberal visa standards.

Giovanna Tipán Barrera, the director of the human mobility department of the Pichincha region which incorporates Quito, said so many “extra-continental” migrants have arrived in recent years that they are now running Spanish classes for Arabic speakers and other communities.

Her department has worked with migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, Ghana, and Iran, and while some arrive with nothing, others are “middle, middle upper class. They have the resources to pay for the journey, they do not want to take the boat” to Europe.

Although some of the people they work with will stay in Ecuador, others “use Ecuador as a trampoline to reach the US.” That concerns her, as the America’s passage can be as perilous as an improvised Mediterranean boat crossing: trekking through Colombia’s Darien Gap jungle is “suicide,” she said. Crime and guerrilla groups extort migrants. The fees to go north are considerable: $10,000 to $20,000 to travel from Ecuador to the U.S., by land.

Dr Thania Moreno Romero, chief prosecutor for the Pichincha region, says there has always been a migration route from Ecuador to the U.S. and Canada, only the migration from here was “a local phenomenon.”

“But since 2008 when we introduced freedom of movement, we have started to see people from Pakistan, from India, Afghanistan coming to our country,” she added.

Trekking through Colombia’s Darien Gap jungle is “suicide,” she said

"But since 2008 when we introduced freedom of movement, we have started to see people from Pakistan, from India, Afghanistan coming to our country"

Travelling between Ecuador and Colombia can be as easy as walking across the border; there are as many as 33 informal crossing points. Coyotes — a well-connected network of multi-national smugglers – are highly flexible and just change routes and vehicles when law enforcement manages to disrupt business.

Mauricio Burbano, deputy director at the Jesuits Migrant Mission in Quito and a professor at Ecuador’s Pontificia Universidad Catolica identified a recent increase in asylum claims from Syria and some African countries. He even tells the cautionary tale of a traveler from Equatorial Guinea who was told by smugglers he was being taken to France but ended up in Ecuador.

Juan Pablo Terminiello, a United Nations refugee official in Quito, said that while non-Latinos make up a very small proportion of the refugees claiming asylum in Ecuador (Colombians make up around 90-percent), migrants from other nationalities have started to appear with greater frequency.

From left to right, Mujtba Al-Ridha, 10, Shah Al-Ridha, 19, Mujtba Al-Ridha, 10 and Alyaa Al-Safi, 44, inside their home in Quito, Ecuador, on XXXXX of 2017. Ali Al-Ridha, 47, not pictured, flee Iraq when the local Shia militia started asking after him. They had found out he had lost his faith, and if they found him, he feared he’d be beheaded. He fled overnight not even pausing to pack his things. He travelled first to Moscow, where he Googled “countries that accept Arabic Muslims without a visa”. The best option he could find? Ecuador. He took his daughter with him to set up everything for the rest of the family. They came one year later and suffered treats and violence during that time in Iraq. One of his sons, Murtada Al-Ridha, 20, was taken by Shia militias to prison and attack him throwing a motorcycle in his direction. It broke his ankle. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel)

“In the last two or three years the case-load has been changing. New nationalities started to appear in small numbers, from Asia, Bangladesh, from the Middle East – from Afghanistan, Syria, and from West Africa,” Terminiello said.