Politics is the perfect cover for those seeking to line their pockets: Find a populist message to get yourself elected and then bend the rules to send government business to friends and family, not forgetting to take a cut for yourself along the way. And then there’s lots of means to hide your ill-gotten gains behind shell companies, evade taxes and squirrel away your loot in secret offshore bank accounts.

Here are some kleptocrats who have perfected the art of personal enrichment, and a look at other politicians in countries so plagued by corruption or who are so adept at exploiting special loopholes designed to benefit the rich that’s it’s getting harder and harder to tell these days who’s clean and who’s not.

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Nicaragua

Though Daniel Ortega rose to prominence by leading a popular workers’ revolt against the entrenched dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, he has had little use for democracy. His selected political allies have included the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Libya’s former strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Since returning to power in a disputed 2006 election, Ortega has turned thuggery into a high art form by unleashing mobs on his opposition and consolidating his power through patronage. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in its region, with 30 percent of people living below the poverty line, and it has wide income disparities. Why is no one surprised? When Mr. Ortega was booted from office in 1990 after his first time as president, he and his Sandinista cronies looted the country to the tune of $700 million, by some estimates. They stole from the central bank, and they seized homes and businesses in a scandal dubbed “La Pinata,” after the children’s game where kids whack papier-mâché animals to get the goodies inside.

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

Teodoro Obiang

The president of Equatorial Guinea has a genius for insuring that none of his country’s vast oil wealth goes to help its impoverished people, over 60 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day. He has created the perfect kleptocracy. His son, Teodorin, built a mammoth $700 million luxury yacht, whose cost is six times more than the country spends on health care and education combined. This, in addition to a fleet of luxury cars and a $30 million estate in Malibu, which he agreed to sell in 2015 to settle U.S. charges of looting his country to the tune of $325 million to finance his extravagant lifestyle.  Asked once how he managed to spend so outrageously on a government salary, the despot’s son and presumed successor said in a sworn affidavit that in Equatorial Guinea, government ministers can partner with companies that win government contracts. As a result, he wrote, “a cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account.

ZIMBABWE

Robert Mugabe

Thanks to Robert Mugabe, among the longest-standing leaders in Africa, Zimbabwe is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries by Transparency International.  Cronies of the 92-year-old leader pull down huge ministerial salaries and use their posts to richly feather their nests. When the mines minister allegedly demanded a $10 million bribe for one mining venture, Mugabe turned a blind eye — hardly a surprise for a president who spends $50 million a year on travel and has a fancy house in the richest district of Hong Kong. Such blatant self-dealing is starting to catch up with them. Protesters are hitting the streets and the opposition party is demanding an explanation for what has happened to $15 billion in diamond revenues. The socialist liberation leader has only brought violence and poverty to a country that was once seen as the breadbasket of Africa.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Joseph Kabila

Since taking office as president in 2001 following the assassination of his father Laurent, Joseph Kabila is seen as doing little to combat corruption and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country is resource rich: Diamonds, cobalt and rare minerals used in electronics are all found in abundance and it’s the region’s largest copper producer. Yet the country has a long history of corruption. Laurent Kabila’s predecessor, Mobutu Sese Seko, allegedly walked away with $4 billion and Swiss courts found that a statute of limitations ran out on collecting some of that bounty. Meanwhile, the DRC remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and the eastern region is ravaged by violence in the longest running conflict that few have ever heard of. Citizens struggle with incomes that average $200 a year. Only two other countries have lower per capita income. Kabila’s arrest in May of opposition leader Moise Katumbi, hours after he announced his candidacy for president in elections scheduled for later this year, has stoked fears the leader is bent on remaining in power.

KAZAKHSTAN

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Since 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan’s only president. In April 2015, he was elected to another five-year term, receiving nearly 98 percent of the vote. He has become a de facto “president for life” for the oil-rich Central Asian country with immunity from prosecution and an extraordinary grip on the nation’s politics. The Nazarbayev family was investigated by Western governments over money laundering, bribery and assassinations, although the U.S. Justice Department closed the case in 2010. But they must have something to hide. The Panama Papers leak (see below) of offshore companies showed Nazarbayev relatives secretly stashing money away in the tax haven.

MALAYSIA

Najib Razak

It’s strange how nearly $3.5 billion turned up in the personal bank account of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The U.S. Justice Department says the money originated in a state-funded development fund, which missed payments to lenders in early 2015. The shortfall drew attention to 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the investment fund formed by Najib to turn Kuala Lumpur into a financial hub, and has spiraled into an ever growing scandal centered on Najib with the amount of money in question increasing over time. Najib has consistently denied doing anything wrong but the U.S. seems to think otherwise. Its anti-corruption unit has moved to seize around $1 billion in assets from Najib, mainly luxury properties and a private jet — its biggest asset seizure ever. The U.S. action was a twist considering that Malaysia’s attorney general had cleared Najib of wrongdoing in January.  Meanwhile, Najib blames the leader of the opposition, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, of political sabotage saying he is working “hand in glove” with the United States to topple a democratically elected leader — charges that Mahathir has denied.

HONDURAS

Juan Orlando Hernández

Torch-wielding citizens took to the streets in 2015, protesting corruption among government high-ups, including President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras. While the street protests are new, corruption sadly is all too common in Central America — just look at Guatemala, whose president and vice president were arrested, ousted, and replaced in 2015 following a corruption scandal of their own.  But in Honduras, Hernández has held onto power despite accusations of inflated healthcare contracts in an audacious scheme that left patients dying while money allegedly was used to fund Hernández’s reelection. While no charges have been filed against Hernández or his fellows, officials from the Social Security Institute–and a girlfriend–have been nabbed throughout South America, having fled the nation. To appease the people, Hernández settled on an Organization of American States-led investigation into the alleged embezzlement of $350 million, arguing that impunity will become a thing of the past. But citizens won’t believe him before they see big names held to account. OAS has a less than stellar reputation in the country after it failed to strongly defend Honduran democracy in a 2009 coup. As for Hernández, his new hand-picked judges on the Supreme Court have conveniently changed the re-election laws, clearing the way for him to make another run for the presidency.

UKRAINE

Reckless corruption marked the rule of former President Viktor Yanukovich, contributing to his downfall in 2014 when his opulent estate complete with golf course, hunting grounds and zoo were opened to public view. Yanukovich escaped to Russia while the billions of dollars robbed from state coffers each year by him and his cronies had left the country’s army ill-equipped to counter Russia’s invasion of Crimea weeks after the president’s ouster. Two years later, Ukraine remains in political turmoil, its judiciary rotten and despite shocking revelations has yet to lock up any corrupt officials. Forbes meanwhile just happens to list its current president Petro Poroshenko as the richest leader in Eastern Europe who has opened a secret offshore company.

NIGERIA

“If we don’t fight corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria” is the dictum emblazoned upon the walls of the Nigeria Police Force headquarters in a country where looting by the elite is akin to a national sport. These words helped propel President Muhammed Buhari to power last year. He ousted Corruption All-Stars favorite Goodluck Jonathan, one of whose major achievements was to fire the central bank chief for daring to reveal that $20 billion in state oil revenues had gone missing. But a year into the anti-corruption campaign, Buhari’s reputation is getting a little tarnished. Top politicians in his party are scrambling to explain why an extra $53 million was fraudulently tacked onto the federal budget. It’s a sorry reminder for the 70 percent of Nigerians struggling to survive on less than $2 a day that cleansing a country so steeped in corruption will take far more than a few slogans. Nigeria certainly deserves a place on the All Stars list; let’s see about Buhari.

BRAZIL

Watch This Space

When Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was suspended in May for allegedly manipulating government accounts during her 2014 reelection campaign, she said the practice was commonplace among previous presidents, and she claimed the whole thing was politically motivated. It was after all her political opponents, some of whom were under investigation themselves, who had made the accusations. But Rousseff has seen her fair share of scandals. Twenty-five people, including top members of her party with close ties to her mentor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were convicted in 2012 of illegally using public funds back in 2005, and lately Petrobras, the state oil company which she chaired from 2003 to 2010, has been engulfed in a huge corruption investigation.

Known as Operation Car Wash, the probe has revealed that Petrobras took regular kickbacks from construction companies and even admitted to spending $1.7 billion on bribes last year alone, all of which lined the pockets of its top officials and politicians in a scheme that happened under Lula and Rousseff’s watch. No solid evidence has been presented against the pair, but as the pincers were closing upon Lula, his star pupil tried to move him out of harm’s way by appointing him her chief of staff, effectively protecting him from prosecution. It caused a political uproar and stoked support for her impeachment.

Interim President Michel Temer has promised not to interfere with the investigation, but it might be somewhat naive to believe him. Plea bargain witnesses are calling Temer the “godfather” of the corrupt system. Already, two of his cabinet members have been caught trying to cover it up, and he himself faces charges he asked for illegal campaign contributions in 2012, which he of course denies. It’s a mess.

EXPOSED IN THE PANAMA PAPERS

Most of us agree that paying taxes are unpleasant, but few of us will ever make enough money to walk in the footsteps of the following multi-millionaires, who went to great lengths to avoid taxes or hide their wealth. Those that do, however, turn to tax havens–like Panama.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a tax haven, or stashing your treasure in one. In fact, the United States is quickly becoming a favorite haven among the world’s wealthy. But if you’re caught funneling cash overseas, especially as a public figure, expect your actions to be considered suspicious. Companies set up in tax havens are anonymous, conveniently hiding where the money that’s tucked away came from. If you’re a world leader lining your pockets by engaging in corruption and you need somewhere to bury the evidence, a tax haven like Panama is ideal. Thanks to the Panama Papers leak, led by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, some of those names and shady practices have seen the light of day. These are some of the headliners:

Russia’s Vladimir Putin

Controversy surrounding President Vladimir Putin always seems to take a familiar shape: A lurking suspicion about his activities is counterbalanced by plausible deniability, the absence of hard fact and the blaming of Western powers. Though Putin himself wasn’t named in the papers, a very close friend of his, cellist Sergei Roldugin, was listed as the owner of two offshore companies. One was involved in a particularly shady deal where a $6 million loan was later written off for $1. Some of this money has been traced back to loans from state banks and linked to Putin through a ski resort, where one of his daughters was married. Roldugin has yet to explain how he as a musician rather than a businessman holds a number of stakes in Russian companies, including Bank Rossiya, described as Putin’s “crony bank” and sanctioned by the U.S. The bank also just happens to be run by Yuri Kovalchuk, whom the U.S. alleges is Putin’s personal banker. There are others close to Putin who hold offshore accounts, spiking suspicion that they may exist for the same purpose suspected for Roldugin’s offshores. Amid the controversy, Putin has said that the information revealed in the leaks was all true, but he has vehemently denied “any element of corruption”. To cap it all off, he presented the ordeal as a Western plot to smear his name. It has certainly called into question exactly how much personal wealth the man has amassed–and what lengths he might go through to make sure no one can answer that very question.

Iceland’s Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson 

Of all of the Panama Paper’s victims, none fell faster than the former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson–and he didn’t even do anything illegal. Iceland, which saw its economy tank in the 2008 recession, had zero tolerance for a leader who, the day before such disclosures would be required by law, conveniently sold his shares in an offshore company founded in 2007 to hold and invest his now-wife’s inheritance for $1. But then, after the 2008 market crash caused the company to lose millions, it claimed more than $4 million from Iceland banks, a deal Gunnlaugsson, as prime minister, was involved in despite the conflict of interest. Iceland’s citizens didn’t shy away from demonstrating their views on the matter. Protests were massive in the nation of only 330,000, and within a week Gunnlaugsson’s prime ministership was gone, though he did not resign. Although there was no evidence of Gunnlaugsson having evaded taxes or engaged in corruption, Icelanders were furious with the misdeeds of their leader when the nation was reeling from an economic downfall.

Argentina’s Mauricio Macri

While Argentina broke free of Cristina Fernandez Kirchner’s corrupt presidency late last year, the pristine reputation of her replacement, Mauricio Macri, unfortunately didn’t last long. Macri’s name was included in the massive Panama Papers leak, revealing that he had been on the boards of two offshore companies, a fact he had failed to disclose. Again, while his actions were not necessarily illegal, the discovery raised questions about the accountability of Argentina’s leader. Facing an inquiry and calls to resign, Macri, while largely silent on the matter, has maintained that he hasn’t done anything illegal. As much as Macri undoubtedly hoped the scandal would blow over, it’s still steaming as the inquiry into the affair continues.

The UK’s David Cameron

While it was the Brexit vote, not the Panama Papers, that cut short David Cameron’s time as the United Kingdom’s prime minister, both developments contributed to the public losing faith in his leadership. The discovery that Cameron’s late father held an offshore company, which didn’t pay British taxes, sat ill with a country hard hit by the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Cameron maintained that he had sold his shares in the fund before he became prime minister and didn’t have any further connections to the fund, though it sullied his reputation for leading the charge against shell companies and tax dodging. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called for him to publicize his financial dealings and accused him of having “one rule for the wealthy and another for us.”

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Fitah, 32, Somalia
Fitah has been a refugee for ten years but has only been in Brazil for a few months. After leaving his home country in 2007 due to the civil war, he went to South Africa, where he stayed until March 2017. Paying $4,000 USD to smugglers in Johannesburg, he managed to enter Brazil posing as a South African refugee. He wanted to travel on to the United States, but the “travel package” offered by his smugglers only gave him two options, Turkey or Brazil. He chose the latter.

Afonso, 28, Congo
Upstairs in one of the big bedrooms of the Scalabrinian Mission Afonso, a 28-year-old migrant from Congo, explained how he came from Kinshasa in 2015 by boat, escaping from the violent conflicts raging in his own country. He hired the service of smugglers and came on a cargo ship with a number of others. He paid for part of the trip by working on the ship. He was left in the coast of Santos, a city 55km away from Sao Paulo. He is now searching for a job.

“K.”, 39, Sierra Leone
At Caritas, a non-profit providing support to refugees and migrants, we met “K” (who asked not to reveal his full name), who had left Sierra Leone three months ago. His grandfather was a chief priest of a secret society for whom it is a tradition to initiate the oldest son of the family when the former elder dies. A Christian and a graduate in Information Technology, “K” refused to take part in the ritual and says he was then targeted. He fled to stay with family in the interior of the country, but was kidnapped and held captive in the forest. One night he managed to escape to the city and met a woman from a Christian organization which provided airplane tickets so he could leave immediately for Brazil.

Jorge, 25, Guinea-Bissau
Jorge is a trained engineer who came to Brazil two years ago, who is now selling counterfeit and smuggled clothes in a local market. His Brazilian girlfriend is now pregnant and he is waiting for a work permit in order to get a job as mason. He said that when Federal Police went to his home address to confirm he was living there - an essential step in the process of issuing a work visa to a migrant - his house mates thought they wanted to arrest him and denied he lived there. It delayed his chance of getting a permit that would allow him a legal and better-remunerated job. The lack of trust in Brazilian law enforcement is a huge issue among refugees and migrants, many say that they rarely provide help or support, but instead only make their lives more difficult.

Abu, 37, Senegal
In República Square in the downtown Centro neighbourhood, African migrants sell clothes - some of them counterfeit designer wear,, some not - and handicrafts. Abu, 37, from Thiès in western Senegal, came to Brazil in 2010 with the hope that World Cup would make Brazil a prosperous country and offer him a new life. He says migrants should be respected for having the courage to leave everything behind and restart from nothing. Discrimination and lack of jobs are an issue for Abu, so he says his plan now is to save money and go to Europe as soon as possible. When he first arrived, he had money to stay in a hotel for seven days. After that, he met people who got him a job as a street vendor for contraband and traditional Senegalese clothes sewn in Brazil with African fabrics. Every time the police come and seize the goods he sells, it can take up to five months to recover the money lost.

Ibrahim, 41, Senegal
Members of the Senegalese community gather in República Square every week for a party, mounting up their own sound system, bringing drums and singing. On the night we visit around 50 people were dancing and chanting traditional Senegalese songs. Later they take a seat and discuss issues important to the community. Ibrahim, one of the group, has a talent for sewing fake Nike and Adidas logos to clothing in an improvised atelier nearby. Although he is a professional tailor and prefers to dedicate his time to his own original work, he says financial pressures meant he was forced to join the market of counterfeit designer-label clothing.

Guaianazes street, downtown Sao Paulo

On Rua Guaianazes there is a run-down mosque on the second floor of an old and degraded building, which is frequented by many African migrants. Outside, the smell of marijuana and cheap crack is inebriating. Crowds gather on the streets in front of the packed bars, while different people ask us if we want cheap marihuana. We enter one bar that has literally no chairs or tables: there is a poster of Cameroon’s most famous footballer Samuel Eto’o on the wall, and a big snooker table in the centre while all around customers gamble, argue and smoke. The bar tender tells us it is a Nigerian bar, but that it is frequented by Africans of all nationalities. Among the offers of cheap marijuana, crack and cocaine, laughs, music and loud chat, you can barely hear to the imam's call. Rua Guaianazes is considered to be the heart of Cracolandia, a territory controlled by organized crime for more than a decade and now reportedly home to some African-led drug trafficking gangs.

Santa Efigenia neighbourhood
Santa Efigenia is an area of around ten street blocks in the heart of the Centro area where locals says you “won't find anything original product or any product that entered the country legally”. There are dozens of galleries with local merchants, migrants and hawkers selling their wares, and crowds shouting and grabbing to sell counterfeit and contraband electronics late in the night. When we visited, a homeless old man was setting a campfire out of trash to heat himself on the corner, the people passing by aggressively yelling at him due to the black smoke his improvised urban survival mechanism was generating.

“H”, 42, Angola
“H” is an Angolan woman now living in a house rented from the Baptist church. The area outside the house is a “boca de fumo” - an open drug dealing spot managed by armed guards. “H’s” house is annexed to the church building itself, and is very rustic and simple. She arrived a year ago with two of her children, and also pregnant. She says that after the family of the Angolan president took over the market of smuggled goods in her country, her small import business started to crumble. Her husband and two more daughters are still there. She is currently unemployed, but happy that her young son is studying, although often he comes home complaining about racism at school. “H” does not want him to play with the neighbourhood children, she is afraid he will be drawn to narco-trafficking if he gets in with the wrong crowd. In the long run, she wants to go back to Angola, but only under “a different political situation.”

Lalingé restaurant, Sao Paulo
Arami, the owner of the bustling restaurant Lalingé – which means “The Princess” in her language – has been in Brazil for seven years. She opened the restaurant a year ago so that the African community in the Centro neighbourhood has a place to gather and eat food from their continent. It’s the kind of place people arrive at any time of the night or day, order their food and chat.

Scalabrinian Mission, Canindé neighbourhood
The Scalabrinian Mission in the neighborhood of Canindé provides philanthropic aid to migrants. Soror Eva Souza, the director, says they have helped people from Africa (Angola, Congo, Guinea, Togo, Nigeria, South Africa, Mali, British Guyana, Somalia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Uganda), North Africa and the Middle East (Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt), Asia (Cambodia, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh), Europe (The Netherlands, Russia, France) and Latin America and the Caribbean (Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Cuba). The Mission provides housing, food, clothing, medication and facilities for migrants. They only receive a small amount of financial support from local government, but work to help migrants find a job so they can live independently. Souza says many of those who arrive at the house are ill: some are seriously injured, others sick from the journey or the conditions they were living in before arriving in Sao Paulo. Since 2015, she says she has seen  human trafficking and slavery victims, drug mules, political refugees, and people who have lost their families en route. When we visit 40-year-old Mohamed Ali, from Morocco, was trying to find a job with the support of the Mission.

Clement Kamano, 24, Guinea-Conakry
Kamano was studying Social Sciences at Université Général Lansana Conté when he took part in the protests of September 28th, 2009, which ended up in a massacre with more than 150 people killed. Afterwards, he was repeatedly harassed because of his involvement in social movements. Fearing he might be killed, his father bought him a ticket to Brazil. Now he is a political refugee, who is almost fluent in Portuguese, and who enjoys talking about the sociologist-philosophers Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, even Leibniz and Nietzsche. He is currently applying to join a federal university in Sao Paulo.

What’s “cereza” in Arabic?
In a bright classroom in the centre of Quito, a group of students sit around a whiteboard. “Yo veo la televisión con mis amigos en la tarde,” they repeat after the teacher, “I watch television with my friends in the afternoon.” “Yo tomo el bus par ir al trabajo,” “I take the bus to go to work.”

Around the table are two Syrians who fled the war, one Cameroonian who says he wanted to escape the Anglo-French conflict in his homeland, two Afghans, one a former top-ranking police officer, an Egyptian and a Sri Lankan who wanted to go anywhere where he could make enough money to help his family. Migrants who arrive in Ecuador from Africa, Asia and the Middle East face a steep learning curve: it might be relatively easy to enter the country, thanks to Ecuador’s liberal open-border policy, but finding work here and learning Spanish can be difficult. Today their teacher is translating between Arabic, Spanish and English. “Market”? asks one. “Souk” replies another member of the group, while a fellow student does a quick translation into Pashtu.

Experts say some of those who come through language centres like these are planning on continuing their journey north, others on staying in Ecuador.

A little piece of Nigeria, in Quito
As the night closes in, Grace, a 25-year-old law graduate from Cameroon, dashes between a barbeque out on the street and the kitchen in the small Nigerian restaurant where she is working the night shift, as a television showing an African football league plays in the background. She wears a dark top, and her hair pulled back, as she fans the tilapia grilling on the coals. When she was denied a Canadian visa, despite having a scholarship, she decided she still wanted to leave Cameroon, where she complains of a lack of jobs and opportunities for the country’s English-speaking minority. With three friends, she bought a ticket heading west for Ecuador where she heard she could enter with her invitation to study at a language school. She soon converted to a missionary visa, and now works here and sings in the choir at a church up the hill, teaching Sunday school at the weekends. Like many of her customers, she also wants to travel north to the US or Canada, but only with the correct papers. “If you go without papers and through the jungle, you might be lost. Then my family is lost as well.”

The Afghan police officer
Asadullah, a former police officer, spent 31 years training new recruits and fighting terrorist groups in his country. Among the documents he smuggled out with him is a photograph of him with Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defence, paperwork from a training programme at the National Defence University in Washington DC, and training certificate from the George C Marshall centre in Europe, signed by the German defence minister.

His career had been high-profile and illustrious, but while that brought recognition from the Americans and their allies, it also brought him the unwelcome attention of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

For three years before he fled, he says terrorists were calling him saying he needed to end his work with the police. “Come and work with us,” they’d coax. When he refused, someone tried to throw acid on his child at school – that was when he decided to leave.

Today the family are renting a spacious flat in central Quito, with a big beige sofa and swept wood floors. A big TV is mounted on the wall behind him, and one of his children brings in sweet tea and fruits. His wife and six of his children are with him, awaiting a decision from the migration authorities on their asylum case. For the sake of his children – who all speak English – Asadullah wants to go to the US.

“I want to go to America, but it’s a process: it will take a lot of time,” he says. “We have been waiting to get an answer. I only came here because the bad people wanted to kill us. I’m just here so I’m safe.” He considered going to Europe, but considered the route there more dangerous. “Many Afghan people wanted to go to Europe, to Turkey, but many people died in the sea.”

The Artist
Mughni Sief’s paintings once made him a well-known artist in his native Syria: he taught fine art in a top university, and was invited to Lebanon to show his work. But since the war, and his decision to flee, his paintings have taken on a darker tone. One , “Even The Sea Had A Share Of Our Lives, It Was Tough” touches on the horrors so many Syrians have seen as they try to flee to safety.

“This painting is about Syrians crossing the sea to go to Europe from Turkey. I put this fish head and cut the head off to show the culture of ISIS. This here is the boat people,” he explains in his spartan apartment in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. “Syria was empty of people, and there are so many people dying in the sea.”

From the windows of his bedroom-come-studio, you can see the mountains, washing hanging in the sunshine on a neighbours balcony, beige tiles. Behind him the bed sheets – which came with the house – are adorned with images of teddy bears and the phrase “happy day.”

In the corner is a small, rolling suitcase in which he brought his wood carving tools, crayons, and charcoals from Syria: everything from his old life that he dared bring without alerting attention that he was leaving the country. In a small backpack he bought a Frederick Nietshce paperback, a birthday present from a friend, and a book he bought in Syria: “Learn Spanish in 5 days”. He didn’t bring any photos, in case his bag was searched.

Frustrated by restrictions he faced as a Syrian in Lebanon, he started to research other places where he might make a new start. He read that Ecuador was “one of the few countries that don't ask for a visa from Syrians. I had problems leaving Lebanon, and in El Dorado in Colombia but at Quito I came in no problem. The only question was: why are you coming to Ecuador, do you have money? I said nothing about asking for asylum so they just gave me a tourist visa.”

Soon after he made his asylum application, and today, he paints while he waits for a decision. “Before the war I was focused just on humans, on women, but when the war started that changed, and I began focusing on the miserable life that we live in Syria,” he says as he arranges three paintings on the bed. In one, he explains, is a woman who can’ face something in her life, so prefers to stop speaking.

Tricked
Although many of the migrants that make their way to Ecuador are able to travel more independently than those making the journey across the Mediterranean, examples abound of exploitation of some who arrive here. Mohammad, for example. He’s  a 24-year-old from Sri Lanka who first tried his luck in Malaysia, but was cheated by a travel fixer who took his money while promising him a work visa that never materialized. When he was arrested for working without the proper documents, a friend had to come and pay the police to get him out. Travelling west, to Ecuador, after religious violence broke out in his hometown, he says he paid someone he knows to help sort out his travel, unsure of how much he took as a cut. When he flew in, alongside a Sri Lankan family, the agent arranged for him to be picked up by an unknown woman who charged each of them again to take them to a hostel. He is now renting a room from a man he met at the mosque. Every day continues to be a struggle, he said.

“At home, I saw so many troubles each day. I decided to come here thinking maybe things will be good. But I did one week working in a restaurant, they treated me like a slave. For three months I was searching for work. They are good people here but I have no opportunities here. Seven months I have nothing, I’m wasting my time.”

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