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CHILE: Amnesty for Immigrants a Stride Forward, Not a Magic Bullet

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 24 2007 (IPS) - Immigrant rights advocates welcomed the amnesty for undocumented Latin American immigrants offered by the Chilean government, but said it is not a cure-all.

The amnesty “is a step forward, towards considering us as human beings,” said Raúl Paiba, president of the Committee of Peruvian Refugees in Chile, which represents undocumented immigrants.

But the moratorium should be accompanied by a government anti-discrimination campaign to promote respect for diversity and immigrants, and by a new law on foreigners that would provide solutions to the underlying problems, because otherwise “we’ll just be asking for another amnesty two years down the road,” he told IPS.

In 1998, the government granted an amnesty to 21,000 Peruvians living illegally in Chile, 18,500 of whom are still living in the country and “working and leading normal lives,” according to the Interior Ministry.

An estimated 20,000 people from other Latin American countries, including 15,000 Peruvians, would be eligible for the new amnesty announced on Monday by Interior Minister Belisario Velasco and Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley.

The registration period will be open from Nov. 5 to Feb. 5, and the amnesty will grant applicants a one-year visa with the option of extending it for another year, while giving them the right to work and set up their own businesses, as well as access to health care and other social benefits.

Peru’s Ambassador to Chile, Hugo Otero, and Peruvian Foreign Minister José Antonio Belaúnde expressed their appreciation for the measure taken by the administration of Michelle Bachelet.

The Committee of Peruvian Refugees had been pushing for an amnesty since 2001. However, it does not apply to people who have applied for refugee status.

“There is no law on refugees, and the amnesty does not address their situation. Colombian refugees, for instance, are living in dire poverty,” complained Paiba.

Under the current legislation, undocumented immigrants are caught in a vicious circle. To obtain a temporary visa and an identity card, they must present at least a two-year work contract. But to get a work contract, they must show that they have permission to live in the country. And to gain access to health care and other services, people must show an identity card.

Dozens of people from other Latin American countries enter Chile everyday, drawn by its much-touted “economic success story.” They often come hidden in trucks, sometimes putting their lives at risk, live in poor, overcrowded housing conditions, and take low-paid menial jobs or work in the informal sector.

Xenophobia is another obstacle they face. Experts say discrimination in Chile is suffered mainly by darker-skinned immigrants with indigenous features, regardless of their educational level.

The ostracism experienced by these immigrants often affects them at all levels, from everyday interactions to social benefits, since many have difficulty gaining access to the health and education systems, and are excluded from all but the most precarious jobs.

For that reason, the treatment received by immigrants from Argentina, many of whom are of European extraction, contrasts sharply with that received by people from Peru and Bolivia, where most of the population is either indigenous or of “mestizo” (mixed-race) origin.

In Chile, meanwhile, there is a small white elite, a large majority of mestizos, and a small minority of Amerindians. However, until recently, most sources described the population as overwhelmingly white.

Paiba said the government decided to grant an amnesty because Santiago will be hosting the 17th Ibero-American Summit of heads of state and government from Nov. 8-10, the focus of which will be “social cohesion and social policies to achieve more inclusive societies in Ibero-America”, which is made up of Spain, Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America.

Chile’s 2002 census counted 184,464 immigrants in the country, 26 percent of whom were from Argentina, 21 percent from Peru and six percent from Bolivia.

According to information provided to IPS by the government, 258,829 foreign nationals currently live in Chile, a country of 15.6 million.

The amnesty will benefit immigrants from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

To be eligible for the amnesty, the migrants must have entered Chile prior to Oct. 21, have a valid passport or national identity card from their own countries, and be living in Chile illegally for a variety of reasons: because they overstayed their visa, entered the country without a visa, have filed a pending application for legal status, or are working without a permit.

The application form is available in municipal and provincial government offices, consulates, post offices, and the Catholic Institute for Migration (INCAMI) and other organisations that work on behalf of immigrants. It can also be downloaded on-line at

Fugitives from justice and immigrants who have been deported from Chile are not eligible for the visa, which costs 30,000 pesos (around 60 dollars), and 9,000 pesos (under 20 dollars) for dependents who cannot work.

Paiba said it is legitimate for the Chilean state to collect a fee, but argued that it makes no sense for the Peruvian consulate in Santiago to charge for the paperwork that Peruvian citizens must fill out there.

Amnesties for immigrants do not resolve the underlying problem, but they are one step towards improving humanitarian conditions for immigrants, said Diego Carrasco, the executive director of the non-governmental Inter-American Observatory for Migrants’ Rights (OCIM), made up of 138 organisations in 25 countries.

To achieve the hoped-for results, he told IPS, a well-organised and decentralised process is needed, based on the participation of civil society organisations, in order to reach the greatest possible number of immigrants, especially the poorest among them. . “We hope the practical application of the amnesty will focus outreach efforts along the borders and in health clinics, schools and churches, where the neediest immigrants go for help,” he said.

Carrasco is also worried about the costs involved in the process, which “should differentiate between those people who are economically stable and those who cannot afford to pay the fees, for whom it should be free,” he argued. He concurred with Paiba that the basic problem – the precarious conditions in which thousands of undocumented immigrants live in Chile – can only be overcome with a modern new law on foreign nationals. The current legislation dates back to 1975.

Although the centre-left government has reported that it is drawing up a new draft law, it has not given any indication of when it could be submitted to Congress

“I hope the amnesty is an indication that Chilean society is moving towards integration and respect for multiculturalism,” because “this country has severe problems of xenophobia,” said Carrasco.

OCIM was one of the organisations behind a “campaign for the rights of indigenous people and for an intercultural identity in Chile”, launched in Santiago in early September with the aim of raising public awareness on ethnic diversity through newspaper ads and TV and radio spots.

And on the weekend of May 26-27, university students organised the First Multicultural Festival in Santiago, to promote tolerance, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity, and to spur debate on migration policy.

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j.j. allaire