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Friday, March 1, 2024
SANTIAGO, Mar 27 2023 (IPS) - The Chilean government tightened controls on the northern border to curtail the influx of migrants, especially Venezuelans, along a 1,030-km stretch of border with Bolivia and Peru.
Some 600 military personnel joined the police force to reinforce control, initially for a period of three months.
Left-wing President Gabriel Boric, in office for a year, visited Colchane, a small town in the Andean highlands, on Mar. 15 to talk with the 1,800 local residents, most of whom are Aymara indigenous people.
Undocumented migrants coming to this country enter mainly through that town, triggering social tension and growing expressions of xenophobia, although also drawing shows of solidarity and support from society.
“We have decided to take responsibility for the neglect and lack of equipment and have launched a plan to improve infrastructure and living conditions on the northern border,” said the president.
He said the area was receiving “absolutely uncontrolled migration” that brought the total number of immigrants to 1.4 million, equivalent to seven percent of the current population of this long, narrow Andean country.
The military will have adequate accommodation and will be equipped with thermal cameras and satellite communication systems to double the detection capacity and monitor uncontrolled areas.
The aim, said Boric, is “to contain and reduce irregular migration, but in particular to combat criminal organizations that take advantage of these flows and of people’s needs, to commit crimes such as human, drug and arms trafficking.”
Chile’s border with Peru is 169 kilometers, and with Bolivia 861.
Boric said it was important to “not open the door to hate speech,” just days after a 22-year-old Venezuelan who was proven to be drunk was arrested and charged for allegedly running over and killing a police officer, sparking a wave of xenophobia.
The president also announced that in the next six months he would present a “national migration policy in accordance with the new challenges facing the country,” which in recent decades has become a growing destination for migrants from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, and in the last decade for Haitians and especially Venezuelans.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), since 2013 more than 7.13 million people have fled Venezuela, the majority to other Latin American countries, in one of the largest international displacement crises in the world.
Minister of the Interior and Public Security Carolina Tohá confirmed that there was a list of more than 20,000 reportedly undocumented migrants to be deported.
“When President Boric took office, there were already 20,000 people facing pending deportation orders,” she said.
Two draft laws are making their way through the legislature aimed at expediting deportations for immigrants convicted of drug crimes.
The National Migration Service informed IPS that “in 2022, 1,070 people were deported, which represented a 19 percent increase from the 913 deportations carried out in 2021.”
It also stated that “of the almost 500,000 pending applications (for regularization of immigration status), in the entire year of 2022 until January 2023, more than 365,000 have received a favorable response.”
“About 265,000 involved Temporary Residence applications, which will gradually become applications for Permanent Residence,” the National Migration Service added.
Marginal conditions for undocumented migrants
A survey of “campamentos”, the term given to slums in Chile, found 39,567 migrant families living in them, representing 34.7 percent of the total.
The number of migrants coming in through unauthorized border crossings has mushroomed from 2,905 in 2017, to 56,586 in 2021 and to 13,928 in the first quarter alone of 2022 – figures that do not take into account migrants under 18 years of age, according to the Catholic Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM).
Macarena Rodriguez, chair of the SJM board of directors, told IPS that the influx of migrants through unauthorized border crossings “is not synonymous with people fleeing from justice,” but with people escaping poor life opportunities in other countries.
That is the case of two Venezuelan sisters, Eliana, 36, and Carla, 33, who have traumatic memories of their entry through Colchane, on separate trips, coming by land from Venezuela.
“I came with a ‘travel advisor’ (smuggler or coyote). In Bolivia it was complicated because of many groups that operate there. They kidnapped us in a border area. We were locked up for six or seven days waiting for that person to pay to get us released,” said Eliana.
She came to Chile in September 2021 after living in Peru for almost three years.
“We paid that person to take us to Santiago on a trip without complications. The normal journey is three to four days from Peru, but it took me 15,” she told IPS.
Carla traveled with her eight-year-old son Eduardo and arrived in Chile 15 months ago.
“It was very hard. I wouldn’t want to go through that ever again. The border is very dangerous, there is tremendous insecurity. You experience hunger, cold, thirst and many other things on the journey,” she said.
The sisters both work in Santiago and live in a small rented room in the municipality of Quinta Normal, on the west side of the Chilean capital, for which they pay 312 dollars a month.
“It was difficult to find a school. I thought it was like in Venezuela where you just register your child with his birth certificate. But here they ask for an identity document and educational records,” said Carla, who, like her sister, only wanted to be identified by her first name.
They have both adapted, but they complain about the lack of a protocol to regularize their situation.
“I would like to stay. I am in the process of bringing my daughter, who stayed in Venezuela, but it has become very difficult because I don’t have papers,” Carla said.
“I miss my family and the beaches. I am from the East, where it’s all coastline. There are beaches and islands there, it’s spectacular,” she added.
Eliana said “Chile is a country that opens its doors. There is a lot of work. We have never experienced hunger here, or gone without a place to sleep.”
She wants to bring another sister and her three children to Chile.
“I would like to make a life here, but it is difficult without papers,” she said. “With papers it would be easier to get health coverage, for example. I tried to legalize my status, but there are many hurdles. There is no set procedure with clear steps to follow.”
Another Venezuelan Erika Vargas, 42, originally from the western Andean state of Táchira in that country, lives with her husband and four children in Rancagua, 90 kilometers south of Santiago. She came to Chile five years ago.
“My husband came a year earlier and sent me a permit to travel with the children,” she told IPS.
“We’re doing fine…the children have documents and now we are in the process of getting permanent residency,” she explained while lining up at the Venezuelan consulate in the capital.
Her husband José González, 40, came from the eastern Venezuelan state of Anzoátegui thanks to a “democracy visa” created by former President Sebastián Piñera (2018-2022).
“I’m a civil engineer and I have a degree in public accounting, and I work in logistics in a mining company,” he said. “My wife came a year ago, she works in education. We all came legally.”
González lamented that he could not practice his profession because “to get my degrees recognized I would have to pay about six million pesos (7,500 dollars).”
What the experts say
The SJM’s Macarena Rodríguez said the presence of the military in the north “is aimed at preventing or reducing the influx of people with criminal records and the entry of weapons.”
“It’s a temporary measure that will be in place as long as the military is there, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is providing care for these people,” she told IPS.
According to Rodríguez, the movement of troops is designed to attack the security crisis rather than forming part of a public policy regarding mobility.
“If you came in by means of an unauthorized crossing, which is the case with the majority, you have no way to regularize your situation… it doesn’t matter if you have a work contract or ties to Chile,” she said.
Germán Campos-Herrera, an academic at the Diego Portales University, said the deployment of military troops forms part of “an institutional framework that guarantees that the use of firearms is restricted to cases where people’s lives are endangered.”
He believes, however, that elements such as “a much stricter control of those who enter and leave and knowing who are the migrants who commit crimes and are in an irregular situation” are missing.
Rodríguez said “We had not experienced these levels of exodus in the region. None of the countries of the Southern Cone (of South America) have experienced this before.”
That is why Boric wants to talk with Bolivia and Venezuela and raised the issue at the 28th Ibero-American Summit, held in Santo Domingo on Mar. 24.
“There have been positive signals, from both Bolivian and Venezuelan authorities. They are willing to talk and it is an opportunity that we have to take advantage of,” said Foreign Minister Alberto van Klaveren.
“It was not a central theme of the Summit, but it was an opportunity to have contact with the authorities of both countries, express concern and make progress in a forum, towards contact and dialogue,” he added.
Thousands of undocumented immigrants await a solution to their lack of papers, and they praise positive examples, such as the Temporary Work Residence granted by Colombia.
“We could regularize ours status and contribute to the State,” commented Eliana, one of the Venezuelan sisters.
The National Migration Service told IPS that it is developing a project to connect visa applications with the National Employment Service.
“Every year there are unfilled vacancies available in agriculture, transportation or construction. With this project we not only seek to make the flow of migration more orderly but to regulate it and make our migration policy more economically rational,” the National Migration Service said.
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