Ecuador stops waiving visas for Chinese nationals because of an increase in irregular migration

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador on Tuesday announced the suspension of an agreement with China that had waived visas for Chinese citizens traveling to the South American country, citing a “worrying” increase in irregular migration.

Ecuador's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the suspension of the bilateral agreement is temporary and would start on July 1. It added that the measure was taken after authorities saw that around 50% of Chinese nationals entering Ecuador didn't leave the country “through regular routes” nor within the permitted 90 days they were allowed to stay under the waiver agreement.

The development would effectively mean that Ecuador was reinstating visas for Chinese citizens, but the Foreign Ministry did not provide any details.

Since 2023, people from China are among the top nationalities of migrants reaching the United States.

Ecuador, one of the only two mainland countries in the Americas that offer visa-free entry to Chinese nationals, has become a popular starting point for Chinese migrants who would then trek northward through Central America before entering the United States. The other country is the Republic of Suriname.

The Washington-based think tank Niskanen Center, citing official data by the Ecuadorian government, said that Chinese nationals entered Ecuador 48,381 times in 2023 but only left 24,240 times. The difference of 24,141 was the highest of any nationality, according to Niskanen.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said at a daily briefing on Tuesday that Beijing “firmly opposes all forms of human smuggling” and that the country’s law enforcement has been “tough on all kinds of human smuggling groups and individuals engaged in illegal immigration.”

China also has been working with other countries to “jointly tackle human smuggling activities, repatriate illegal immigrants and maintain a good order in cross-border travel,” Lin said.

Lin said the mutual visa exemption agreement between China and Ecuador first came into effect in 2016.

As bilateral relations are stabilizing, Beijing has resumed cooperation with Washington to repatriate Chinese nationals who are in the United States illegally.

The number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States rose drastically last year, when U.S. border officials arrested more than 37,000 Chinese nationals on the southern border, 10 times the number during the previous year.

The monthly tally fell in the first three months of this year, but it rose to 3,282 arrests in April. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has suggested that the Chinese migrants, mostly men, could be building an army on the U.S. soil.

The Chinese migrants and their advocates have rejected Trump’s claims, saying they have left China for better economic prospects and a freer society after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Didi Tang reported from Washington.

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This story has been corrected to show that Ecuador is one of the two mainland countries in the Americas that offer visa-free travel to Chinese nationals.