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  • Laila Whynott

Chileans Protest against Venezuelan Migrants

On January 29, an estimated 4,000 Chileans gathered in Iquique for anti-Venezuelan immigration protests, some going as far as to destroy and set fire to the campsites of Venezuelan migrants.

Photo Credits: NBC News

“This can’t go on,” read a banner at the protest in Iquique, a coastal town more than 870 miles north of Santiago. Thousands of Chileans congregated to protest the influx of Venezuelan migrants, many of whom had set up temporary shelters in Iquique’s town square before deciding on their final destination- likely the nation’s capital, Santiago. Protesters held signs displaying sentiments like, “No More Migrants,” waved Chilean flags, and tore down tents belonging to Venezuelan nationals. Photos from local news sources show demonstrators destroying beds, clothing, and other belongings, before throwing them into bonfires on the street.

In an operation in September of 2021, local police carried out evictions on the square. This was one of many instances of controversial deportations carried out by the Chilean governments in an attempt to prevent new waves of Venezuelan migrants from arriving.

Protestors demanded the expulsion of what they called “criminals,” and urged authorities to implement stricter measures to stop the entry of Venezuelan migrants across the country’s northern border. The call to protest came after a viral video circulated showing a group of Venezuelan migrants attacking police officers at the checkpoint where they were detained. Protesters pressured Chilean authorities to carry out stricter security measures following the incident. The protests signify a larger issue regarding Latin American immigration tensions and raises the question of what role immigrants will play in the region.

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Venezuelans have flocked to Chile in numbers. The country has seen an influx of migrants fleeing Venezuela’s ongoing socio-political and economic crisis, which has caused significant food shortages, increased crime and mortality rates, and the disappearance of basic necessities like electricity.

Since 2014, Venezuela has seen the emigration of nearly 6 million nationals, around 500,000 of whom are finding refuge in Chile. Chile, one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, has remained a top choice for migrants due to its stable economy and once liberal immigration policies. By 2010, nearly 305,000 foreign born citizens resided in Chile, comprising 1.8% of the population. In 2020, approximately 1,500,000 foreign born citizens lived in Chile, making up nearly 7.5% of the population.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Chile reported a “double-flow” of migrants with people both in-migrating and out-migrating simultaneously. Those who fled Venezuela in 2018 returned to the country due to economic repercussions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, however, thousands continued to flee Venezuela as humanitarian, economic, and political crises persisted.

Venezuelan Crisis

Venezuela was once considered the richest nation in Latin America, due to possession of largest oil reserves in the world. However, more than a decade of declining oil revenue along with poor political leadership has resulted in economic collapse, political uprisings, hyperinflation, and food and medical shortages. In 1998, Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela and leader of the 1992 coup attempt, promised to use the nation’s oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor. Although he expanded social services for Venezuelans, corruption was rampant and attempts at economic reform, such as currency devaluation and price controls, proved to be ineffective.

After nearly fourteen years as president, Chavez died from cancer and his chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, assumed the presidency in 2013. At this point, inflation was at 50%. By 2016, the economy was in crisis, the healthcare system was underfunded, and maternal and child mortality increased exponentially. In 2020, COVID-19 spread in Latin America and compounded the nation’s economic and humanitarian crisis. Borders were shut down, hospitals lacked resources and remained significantly understaffed, and schools across the nation were closed. Additionally, shortages of electricity, clean water, and fuel sparked riots, leaving many Venezuelans with no choice but to flee.

Migrant Law Threatens Venezuelans Seeking Deportation

Migration in Latin America recently caught the world’s attention after large numbers of Haitian migrants, many of whom had been living in Brazil and Chile, formed a temporary border camp at the Mexican-US border. In Chile, the issue of migration came into focus during the 2021 presidential election, which was won by young, leftist lawmaker, activist, and former student protest leader, Gabriel Boric. The candidate assured the nation that if he became president, he would “end deportations for illegal migrants and provide foreign nationals the opportunity to legalize their status.”

It is estimated nearly 200,000 Venezuelans live in Chile with irregular status. Following the nation’s emergence from dictatorship in 1990, the population has increased more than four-fold. Between 2010 and 2015, immigration to Chile increased at a faster rate than anywhere else in Latin America. An influx of immigrants from Peru and Bolivia in the 1990s, and Haitans, Colombians, and Venezuelans in the 2000s and 2010s, has diversified Chile, promoting public backlash. In the past decade in particular, Chile’s immigration landscape has changed dramatically, inspiring calls for an updated migratory legal framework after several failed legislative reform efforts in 2012 and 2017.

In April 2021, former President Sebastán Piñera signed a migration law which expedited deportations and made it increasingly difficult for migrants to adjust their status. This was a significant political victory for President Piñera who campaigned on promises of reduced immigration, especially from Haiti and Venezuela. After awaiting congressional approval for eight years, Ley 21325/Ley de Migración y Extranjería took effect on April 20, 2021.

This legislation presents a threat to immigrants who entered the nation through irregular pathways. While it allows anyone who entered Chile through permitted checkpoints before March 18, 2020, when the Chilean government initially closed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to regularize their migrant status, it does not protect unauthorized immigrants.

Those who entered Chile without authorization, however, have a period of 180 days to leave the country before risk of arrest or deportation. Under the law, Chilean authorities do not need to have a criminal complaint against a foreign national to deport them. In other words, anyone who entered the country without inspection can be deported en masse, without a review of their case or an asylum screening. Due to a lack of resources and the ongoing political crisis, it had become nearly impossible for Venezuelan nationals to obtain the necessary travel documents to access neighboring nations. The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Article 22.1 of Piñera’s migration law states deportation cases must be examined and decided individually. The law violates other international agreements, including the American Convention on Human Rights “Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica” (B-32) and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. These agreements grant foreign nationals the right to free movement, due process, non-discrimination, and to request asylum. Guerillmo Silva, President of the Chilean Supreme Court, says the deportation provisions in Law 21325 are “prohibited by international human rights law in general and by Article 22.1 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in particular.”

The Cartagena Declaration, specifically, defines “refugee” more broadly than the UN 1951 and 1967 protocols. It states, “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” The majority of Venezuelans would meet this definition. Under Law 21325, however, people seeking protection may be deported without the opportunity to even file an asylum claim.

Chile’s Interior Secretary announced monthly deportation flights and a 1.5 million dollar contract with Chilean Sky Airlines to conduct mass deportations in February 2021. Chile did not hesitate to begin administration expulsions: on June 6, 2021, more than 50 Venezuelans were deported, the majority of whom were never charged with a crime. Due to Piñera’s migration law, these Venezuelan nationals were deported solely based on how they entered the country, with no examination of their case or opportunity to contest their deportation. According to data provided by the Jesuit Migrant Service (SJM), Chile conducted nearly 1,401 expulsions between January 2018 and January 2021. To compare, the Chilean government aims to deport 1,800 migrants by the end of 2022 and has already scheduled 15 flights to do so.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales and the UN Committee on Migrant Workers called on nations to consider a temporary suspension of deportations.

Chile’s pressing immigration issue has become an issue for the new leftist president, Gabriel Boric, who will be sworn in on March 11. Boric has promised to be a president for “all Chile” and is thought to represent a shift to the left following the presidency of right-wing Piñera. Boric announced a “regular, organized, and secure immigation policy” during his election campaign, recognizing the “benefits of inculturality and promoting real inclusion and recognition of migrants and refugees in society.”

According to Luis Eduardo Thayer, a member of Boric’s planning team, “things need to be fixed urgently and steps need to be taken for migrants to be allowed to enter temporarily.” Thayer emphasized that protection for children and refugees “must be a priority” and addressed the need to “manage immigration rationally, taking the labor market into consideration.” Boric appears to want to pick up on legalizing immigration with job placements but ultimately, the future of immigration comes down to the constitutional reforms process. The Constitutional Convention began operating in July 2021 with a clear mission: to draft a new national constitution for Chile. What happens with Chile’s constitution under President Boric is key and will set a precedent for immigration for years to come.

Chile is going through a transitional period that is both profound and conflicting. The drafting of the new constitution forced Chileans to fundamentally reassess the model they had lived under for the previous thirty years, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction in the country. Additionally, the escalation of social unrest sparked by immigration tensions has shined a light on the shared responsibility between South American countries to resolve the issue.


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