Ecuador Hit by Worst Earthquake in Decades. Here's How HIAS is Responding.

By Rachel Nusbaum,


The powerful earthquake which ripped through Ecuador on Saturday evening, killing hundreds and injuring thousands, has had a dramatic impact on the country, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees who live there.

Ecuador is home to the largest refugee refugee population in South America.

“The scale of the damage is huge,” Stephan Kuffner, a journalist living in Quito, told BBC News of the 7.8 magnitude quake, the most severe to hit Ecuador in decades. "The damage really almost goes from the Colombian border, though the whole country, along the coast, to the border with Peru.”

On Monday afternoon, the death toll stood at 350, with President Rafael Correa warning that the number of dead could continue to rise, according to Reuters.

Ecuador is home to more than 130,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority have fled the ongoing violence in Colombia, which sits on Ecuador’s northern border.

HIAS has been on the ground in Ecuador since 2003. Today, there are 11 HIAS offices in locations across the country, providing humanitarian assistance with immediate physical needs, like shelter, to longer-term integration needs, helping parents find new income sources and livelihoods as well as getting kids enrolled in school.

In 2015, HIAS Ecuador provided nearly 55,000 refugees with assistance through legal, psychosocial, employment and humanitarian programs.  

This devastating earthquake, however, will create a whole new set of challenges for refugees across the country. HIAS sites in Esmeraldas province, on the northwest coast, and in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, were particularly affected.

“Right now, we are trying to get in contact with all of our staff and clients. Our first priority is to make sure everyone is ok,” said Sabrina Lustgarten, director of HIAS Ecuador. “We’ve been coordinating with several government ministries, other international NGOs and the United Nations to ensure a rapid and comprehensive response.”

“We’re working to respond to the needs of both refugees and Ecuadorians who have been affected by this disaster,” said Lustgarten. “Right now, we’re focusing on people’s immediate needs for shelter and protection.”

They’ve also volunteered the services of HIAS staff members with psychosocial expertise, who can help provide mental health support and counseling.

The local Jewish community has also gotten involved, and HIAS has been helping to coordinate their response. On Tuesday, HIAS Ecuador staff will drive the first carload of donations to Esmeraldas province. HIAS is also offering space in its shelters there to families displaced by the disaster.

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