By Orlando Milesi (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Chile’s failed immigration policy – with its death toll, xenophobia and also solidarity -, became a pressing issue for Gabriel Boric’s government that will be sworn in on March 11th, as well as for those drafting the new Constitution, which will include this matter and needs to be ready in July.
A Venezuelan couple, 20-year-old Brenda who is 38 weeks pregnant and 23-year-old Jaiden, plus their small child, reached Santiago on February 3rd, on one of the four buses that came from the Port of Iquique, 1800 kms north of Santiago. They came with another 200 migrants who had crossed the border crossing point in Colchane from Bolivia, entering without a visa.
“The only thing I want is a job to cover our expenses,” said Jaiden at the time. Eleven days later, Brenda had her baby in a Santiago hospital, while Jaiden traveled to the town of Melipilla, 68 kms southeast of the Chilean capital, on his first day of work in the fields.
The deaths of 19 migrants trying to reach Colchane in 2021 and two already in 2022, reveal the danger of this journey where migrants face a “Bolivian winter” with rain and sub-zero temperatures.
Migrants arriving from Bolivia – estimated between 600-1000 per day in January by Colchane mayor, Javier Garcia – flooded the small town of 1,384 inhabitants, located at an altitude of 3600 meters, in the Andean mountains.
They also fueled expressions of xenophobia. In September, protestors burned all the belongings and tents where migrants were spending the night, in the northern port city of Iquique.
“We were there, it was awful,” Yenire (27) and Leonardo (23) remember. They come from Caracas and are looking after their two children, Yeimar (10) and Yemberlin (1). In Iquique, Yenire had a miscarriage two months into her pregnancy, she tells IPS.
Tensions grew again this February 10th when a truck driver died at the highway junction that connects the northern city of Antofagasta and Mejillones. He was apparently killed by three migrants. This incident led to a strike and roadblocks for several days. Posters demanded the border be closed and for migrants not to be let in.
On February 12th, right-wing Sebastian Piñera’s outgoing government published an immigration law to replace the current law in force since 1975, during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).
“The State needs to promote a safe migration, which is manifested in actions that aim to prevent, repress and sanction the illegal smuggling of migrants and human trafficking,” the law stipulates, which gives the government or courts greater power to deport anyone who enters illegally.
Chile’s Minister of Interior, Rodrigo Delgado, announced they will continue with mass deportations: ”we have at least one flight leaving between now and March 11th and it will leave from the North specifically, with people arrested during our operations.”
Venezuelan journalist Lorena Tasca, a professor at Universidad de Chile, in Santiago, reflected upon the country’s more hostile immigration climate: “I no longer feel safe here as a foreigner in Chile,” she said.
Tasca reached the country in 2014 and wrote that she feels “ashamed by how the Chilean media have covered the issue in recent years. My stomach knots up and I avoid news pieces about immigration or homicides and/or thefts involving foreigners.”
What awaits Boric
This climate is pressuring Chile’s future president, Gabirel Boric, who announced a “regular, organized and secure immigration policy”, during his election campaign, in line with international pacts, recognizing the benefits of interculturality and promoting real inclusion and recognition of migrants and refugees in society.”
According to Luis Eduardo Thayer, a researcher at Universidad Catolica Silva Henriquez and member of Boric’s planning team, “recovering control of information and the border is the first thing that needs to be done, as these are the two weakest points.” “We don’t know how many people are entering, who they are, what their situation is, what their criminal record is or whether they have any relatives living here,” he told IPS.
“Things need to be fixed urgently and steps need to be taken for migrants to be allowed to enter temporarily. You can give residency to some, but not to others if they have prior records of havingj committed crimes,” he said.
Thayer raised and addressed the need to “take a regional approach and resolve tensions and conflicts in places where migrants arrive or pass through,” and to also “manage immigration rationally, taking the labor market into consideration.”
“Today, we have a supply and demand market, but this isn’t happening because people don’t have information, nor goods to sell, or networks. We have to do what they’re doing in Brazil, Spain and Canada, that link immigration hand-in-hand with the labor market,” he pointed out.
He also stressed that “protection for children and refugees must be a priority.”
Chile has grown increasingly important as an immigration destination within Latin America, since 1993. Migrants came from Peru and then from Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and then finally came flooding from Venezuela.
Maria Emilia Tijouz, a professor at the Sociology School at Universidad de Chile, told IPS “this isn’t a migration crisis, but in fact a crisis of immigration policy.”
“We could even go so far to call migration a new form of barbarianism, because it involves a permanent punishment of thousands of people who are moving around the world, not only to Chile, but mainly to countries that are considered safer, or are more successful in economic terms,” she explained.
She believes that “global immigration policies are in crisis because it’s widespread displacement that is moved by the strings of global capital. We’re thinking about cheap labor, mass expulsions for environmental reasons, war, persecution, political conflict.”
Tijoux thinks “Venezuelan migrants come to Chile for different reasons. One of these was the invitation the president made in Cucuta,” the Colombian city at the Venezuelan border, where Piñera offered “democratic responsibility visas” to Venezuelans, in February 2019.
In fact, the Venezuelan exodus, to other Latin American countries mostly, has been growing out of control since 2014, a year after Nicolas Maduro’s government came into power, according to statistics from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that places the number of migrants from this country at over 6 million since then.
“Ever since the ‘90s, Chile has seemed like a country that is economically safe, with greater work and residency opportunities,” the sociologist and teacher summarized.
With 19.4 million inhabitants, Chile had 1.46 million immigrants in 2020. Out of them, 455,494 (30.7%) are Venezuelans, followed by Peruvians (16.3%), Haitians (12.5%), Colombians (11.4%) and Bolivians (8.5%).
Peruvian Rodolfo Noriega, the president of the Migrant Protection Foundation, told IPS that “visas need to be granted so that people don’t come illegally, and children don’t enter secretly or via minefields to be reunited with their parents.”
“Luckily, the next administration seems to want to pick up on legalizing immigration with job placements,” Noriega said.
Noriega hopes that Boric’s government “acts on principle.” “There will be a dialogue and we will urge them to respect migrants’ rights. This is part of our struggle with the constitutional reforms process. What happens with the Constitution is key,” he stated.
The 154 Committee members have the final word
Several members from the Constitutional Convention, that has the task of drafting the new Carta Magna that will replace the current one in force since the dictatorship, presented a “Migrant Agenda” so that rights are recognized and guaranteed for every person living in Chile, “regardless of their nationality.”
Its 154 members, made up of an equal number of men and women and 17 representatives of indigenous communities, were elected in a plebiscite vote in October 2020, and began their task on July 4, 2021.
They are mostly progressive persons with no links to political parties, but rather to independent organizations and movements. They have until July 4th this year to write up the new Constitution, and the final document will need to be approved or rejected in a popular referendum.
One of the promoters of the initiative about migrants, Benito Baranda, told IPS that “the Constitution needs to consecrate the right to asylum, which is in our legislation but not in our Constitution, and the right to migrate, for people to be received in a dignified way.”
“Last year, seven asylum applications were granted, while it’s likely that the reality of most people leaving Venezuela meet the requirements for asylum. The Government has been unyielding,” he said.
He considers a third form of recognition: “if you are born in Chile, you will not be stateless.”
“Children born on Chilean soil have no nationality because their parents don’t have their documents in order. A person can’t be left without a nationality… it’s a right recognized in the Pact of San Jose (or American Convention on Human Rights), which Chile signed and ratified,” he pointed out.
According to Baranda, there is a “favorable” opinion about these reforms among constitutional committee members.
“We will have support from two thirds, and then we will have to work with communities for them to understand the Constitution properly and to vote for it,” he added.
According to Tijoux, “not granting legal status gives way to many problems, including leaving people stranded and without their rights. Our concern are families with children, pregnant women, in an extremely vulnerable and, in some cases, subhuman situation.”
“There are thousands of migrants working in Chile, paying their taxes. But they are victims of xenophobia and racism that points to their origins, skin color, economic situation, nationality. With a negative view of Venezuelans, there have been extremely serious situations. Some people don’t want to speak so people don’t recognize where they are from and then abuse them,” she said.
According to Tijoux, migration “can’t only be treated in Chile, it needs to be dealt with in the countries involved. Both where migrants leave from, are kicked out of, or flee from, but also the countries where they pass through on awful journeys, on which we have no idea how many people have perished.”
“The Constitution is my greatest hope. The Convention members are aware of the problem, and I trust that a humanitarian door opens,” she said.