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Chile rejects the migrants it once welcomed

Image by CONNECTAS used with permission

This article is an excerpt from “Migrants, Ignored” published by CONNECTAS, and edited and republished by Global Voices.

Manuel, his wife, and their three children emigrated to Chile from a rural area of Carabobo, Venezuela, sometime during 2018. They can't remember the exact time of their arrival nor all the cities in which they have lived. They only remember that in Colombia they worked in a small town near their route, where they raised enough money to get to Ecuador by bus. They also remember that in Peru they got into a truck with vegetables because no one would stop to take them. They remember that in Chile they walked in the desert 25 kilometers every day for three days. It was such a strenuous journey that one of their 11-year-old twin daughters, Maria, says she has more calluses than feet.

The roads of Latin America have witnessed thousands of stories like this. The media reports some of these stories, but most of them are ignored. Every day, around 800 migrants, almost all Venezuelans, cross into Chile from Bolivia after passing through the continent in search of economic stability. Most travel as a family. Maria and her siblings have been raised on the route for the past three years. Although they miss their home, their father warns them that the place where they were born is already a ghost town. They told CONNECTAS that they will try to stay in Chile where they think there is an opportunity for them to make a living.

The children believe that in Chile their father will finally find a stable job and have a home, and — most importantly — that they will stop walking all day and sleeping wherever the night catches them. They have not yet found out that just a week ago, in northern Chilean port city Iquique, which they already passed through, some locals marched against the migrants, burned their tents and even chased some of them through the streets.

Extremists burn belongings of #VenezuelanMigrants #Chile

Some 5,000 people took part in an anti-immigration march in #iquique on Saturday

They burned the few belongings of the #migrants and accused the Chilean government of not controlling the migration #crisis / cc

pic.twitter.com/ID4mEgAX4U

- DW Español (@dw_espanol) September 28, 2021

According to data from the Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM) based on reports from the Department of Foreigners and Migration of Chile and the National Institute of Statistics (INE), the number of foreigners in Chile increased from 305,000 in 2010 to almost 1,500,000 in 2020, which represents 7.5 percent of the country's general population.

The political and economic crisis in several countries in the region has triggered this spike in migration, and in Chile, it has led President Sebastián Piñera to take more restrictive measures. The new Migration Law, which came into force in October 2021, gives legal status only to those migrants who have entered the country on a permit granted before March 18, 2020, when the authorities closed the borders for the first time due to the pandemic. This law also states that those who cross clandestinely through unauthorized routes will have only 180 days to leave the country without sanction. To enforce this law, the Chilean government rented planes to expel immigrants. Only the Courts of Appeal can stop these expulsions in which migrants travel alongside convicted felons.

The position of the Chilean government has evolved in recent years. In March 2018, Piñera stated: “We will continue to receive Venezuelans in Chile, because we have a duty of solidarity and I never forget that when Chile lost its democracy, Venezuela was very generous with Chileans looking for new opportunities.” But this year, in the midst of the migration crisis, he justified the expulsions saying that: “We do not want organized crime, smuggling, drug trafficking and those who do not respect our laws to enter our country.”

Human Rights organizations have spoken out in support of stopping mass expulsions and analyzing cases in accordance with international standards and respect for human rights.

Even in this context, Chile remains an attractive destination for those who do not have much to lose, particularly Haitians. The Chilean government estimates that by December 2020 there were more than 182,000 Haitians in the country, without including the undocumented ones whose presence is not acknowledged by authorities. In total, Haitians are the third largest migrant population in Chile, after Venezuelans and Peruvians.

In 2017, Chile's National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) conducted its most recent study on the population's perceptions of immigrants and Indigenous peoples and warned that racial discrimination is taking root in public opinion. A striking fact is that Chileans consider themselves mostly “whiter” than other Latin Americans and consider migrants “dirtier.”

Moreover, there is also the abuse committed against migrants at border crossings. For example, the so-called “coyotes” and “pirates” ask exorbitant prices to move them from city to city, though this does not prevent them from often leaving the migrants on the road. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Venezuelan migrant usually spends $1,500 on fares and payments to coyotes from Venezuela to the Chilean-Bolivian border.

In Chile, each 200-kilometer stretch can cost $35 per person on transportation by a “pirate”. In fact, the buses of formal companies avoid carrying migrants because they do not have health documents. This situation is best summed up by what an immigrant told IOM when she was asked about her expenses during her journey: “Venezuelans have become a business.”

In this context, organizations such as the Jesuit Service for Migrants and Migr-Acción Chile call for more international cooperation and shared responsibility between South American countries, as well as cooperation between the police, authorities of affected municipalities, and central governments. The Colombian journalist José Guarnizo considers that a response must also involve the United States, the country that many migrants want to go to but where major barriers exist to legal migration.

Sergio Micco, director of the National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), says that immigration policies and attitudes are related. “If Chileans only talk about migrants in terms of expulsions and evictions, this only favors xenophobia and racism,” he said. 

By Fabiola Chambi and Cristian Ascencio, Members of the editorial board of CONNECTAS.

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