By Merry Pool and Jelena Kopanja, FI2W contributors
After 15 years of living in Europe, Sandra Bustamante was going home to Ecuador on the day of her 40th birthday. For months, she and her husband had not been able to find stable work in Spain and going back to Bustamante’s native country seemed the only option for this family of five. Her 4-year-old daughter Camilla encouraged them with her excitement. Although Camilla had never been to Ecuador, “ever since we’ve told her we’re going, she had been running around the house, waving the Ecuadorian flag and yelling ‘Viva Ecuador!’” Bustamante said.
That was last August. A year later, it seems that Bustamante’s dream of opening an Italian restaurant in Quito is well on its way, according to an infommercial by the Ecuadorian National Secretariat for Migrants (SENAMI).
Bustamante’s family was one of the first beneficiaries of the recently established Plan Bienvenid@s a Casa (Welcome Home Plan), which offers business subsidies, customs breaks and low-interest loans to Ecuadorian migrants who want to return home.
It is estimated that some 1.5 million Ecuadorians, 11 percent of the country’s natives, now live outside the nation’s borders. The Welcome Home Plan is part of President Rafael Correa’s 2006 campaign commitment to make migrants a central component of his administration’s agenda. Ecuador may well be the only Latin American country trying to lure its citizens home during the global economic crisis.
Ecuadorians have been migrating to the U.S. since the 1970s, with many of them settling in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area. Yet it was not until the 1990s –a decade marked by political and economic turmoil that culminated in a collapse of the banking system in 1999– that their numbers increased dramatically. The exodus emptied some villages of entire generations. According to migration expert Jason Pribilsky, the 2000 U.S. Census revealed a 99 percent increase in the number of Ecuadorians who had entered the U.S. in the previous decade. Many of the new migrants also headed for Spain, drawn by the ease of entrance –until 2003 Spain did not require that they obtain visas– and the demand for domestic servants and construction workers.
Approximately 550,000 Ecuadorians live in the U.S. About 700,000 live in Spain.
Remittances from Ecuadorian nationals abroad are crucial for sustaining Ecuador’s dollarized economy. Emigrants’ contributions to the country’s GDP –2.9 billion in 2009, according to the Inter-American Development Bank– were surpassed only by the country’s oil exports. Over half of the remittances came from Europe (mainly Spain) and 40 percent from the United States.
But the economic crisis is affecting livelihoods, and as a result, remittances have decreased in the past year. The difficult circumstances are forcing migrants to consider all options, including returning home.
Newsday recently reported that some 5,000 Ecuadorians have left the U.S. under the government’s Welcome Home Plan. City Limits reported the economic crisis is making many consider going home.
In Spain, approximately 10,000 people have inquired about the plan since last September, when SENAMI opened its Madrid office, said Óscar Jara, SENAMI’s representative. About 2,000 have returned using one or more of the benefits offered.
Most inquiries come from men between the ages of 35 and 40 who have lost their jobs in construction and related industries. The crisis has made it very difficult for families, Jara said. Many fathers are returning home alone or parents are sending their children back to Ecuador because they can no longer support them in Spain.
“Imagine: you left your child when he was four,” Jara said. “You brought him here when he was 12 and now at 16, when he is an adolescent and has made some friends, has gotten used to living in Spain, he has to go back. Concerning the psychological development of these children, this is devastating: again they have to suffer the separation, the uprooting, the destruction of their families and social networks.”
“In terms of the human consequences of the crisis, this is one of the most serious.”
Unemployment levels in Spain are the highest in the European Union. The crisis has contributed to a harsher national climate for immigrants, reflected in new stricter policies being considered.
There are approximately 50,000 Ecuadorians registered as unemployed, according to Spanish government statistics. Some organizations estimate that the numbers are closer to 75,000, as many self-employed workers are not registered.
And while the official Ecuadorian government’s rhetoric has embraced the return of its migrants as essential for the country’s progress, these numbers are alarming even for Ecuador’s president. On a recent visit to Madrid, Rafael Correa warned against a mass return. “If all of (the unemployed Ecuadorians) come back, we of course won’t be able to attend to them all,” he told Spanish daily El País.
Unlike the Spanish government’s Voluntary Return Plan, which Jara considers expulsion in disguise, the Welcome Home Plan appeals to Ecuadorians who may want to go back without risking their Spanish residency permits. To distinguish it from the Spanish plan and the European Return Directive –initiatives that, Jara says, have contaminated the terminology of return — the Ecuadorian government has renamed its program, previously known as Plan Retorno.
Jara emphasizes that his government supports a return that is “voluntary, dignified and sustainable.” One of the plan’s aims is to strengthen –with professional guidance and a grant equivalent to 25% of the seed money– entrepreneurial ideas that would create employment in strategic sectors such as agriculture and tourism.
“A person who came (to Spain) 10 years ago has had courage and an enterprising spirit. That potential should be made use of,” Jara said.
Fifty-nine projects from around the world were sponsored last year and Sandra Bustamante’s Italian restaurant is one of them. This year, the government’s budget could cover approximately 300 projects.
Watch a SENAMI video interview with Sandra (in Spanish):
But many migrants are trying to stay in Spain and the United States despite the economic challenges. Luis Alberto, who arrived in New York in January, is one of them. He said Ecuador’s government should provide more support for those who want to remain abroad.
Pablo Calle, the SENAMI representative in New York, said that the Welcome Home Plan is only one part of Ecuador’s migration initiative, which above all, includes more support for Ecuadorians wherever they reside. “SENAMI is partnering with local nonprofits to give workshops and offer English classes, for example,” he said.
“We are all migrants,” he added, holding up a paper passport with “Universal Citizen” written on its cover. “This is a symbol of what we believe: Ecuadorians weren’t just migrating to live somewhere new, but to help their family survive.”
That idea will probably continue to guide migrants as they decide whether to return to Ecuador or to wait out the crisis abroad.