Skip to content
A migration crisis explodes in Latin America


Oyarzo, who came out to document the rally, said he reached the town’s waterfront and saw a group of protesters arrest seven young Venezuelans, one of whom had lost a leg, and attempt to physically attack them. Other people intervened, but the attackers managed to tear off the backpacks of the migrants and told them they were “criminals” and “thieves”.

“It was terrible!” Oyarzo said. “The migrants were desperate because they were stuck between their attackers and the sea. They had no way out.

Elsewhere in the city, protesters waved Chilean flags and placards with messages reading “Dirty Venezuelans are leaving our country” or “Human rights are for Chileans” and chanted the national anthem. They shouted for migrants, many of whom were families with young children, to return to their countries. Some even spat on them and set the migrants’ clothes, strollers, toys and mattresses on fire.

The violence in Iquique, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants, reflects a growing strain on migration across Latin America. The historic Venezuelan exodus, large numbers of Haitians crossing the continent and other regional migrants who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic have spawned an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region.

Change models

“We have always had migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Cristián Doña-Reveco, director of the Office of Latin American and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“What is changing are the patterns, the response of governments to different flows and the effect they have on the lives of migrants.”

In mid-2020, international migrants represented 2.6% of South America’s total population, a significant increase from less than 1% recorded in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration ( IOM).

Almost 80% of them are from elsewhere in South America and many are now on the move due to increasingly tough positions on immigration in several countries, and because the pandemic has exacerbated conditions of already difficult life and made jobs scarce.

Between 2000 and 2017, several South American leaders, including presidents in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, pushed for more progressive immigration laws that make it easier for migrants to cross borders, to work legally and obtain resident visas. But the political trend has since reversed, with traffic restrictions increasing.

In Argentina, for example, the first destination for migrants in South America, then President Mauricio Macri adopted a decree in 2017 to limit the entry of immigrants and facilitate deportation, sparking strong criticism of the part of the United Nations. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera has also toughened immigration policies.
A migration crisis explodes in Latin America

The political uproar has also increased the pressure. Massive protests in Chile and Colombia, a coup in Bolivia, a political crisis that saw three different men assume the presidency of Peru in a week, and the entrenchment of the authoritarian regime in Venezuela have pushed millions of Latinos out. Americans go in search of a better life.

“While traditionally there were countries in Latin America that were the final destination for many migrants, now all countries in the region have both migrants coming to settle and passing through,” Doña-Reveco said. .

Venezuelans are at the heart of the region’s current humanitarian crisis. Since Nicolás Maduro took power almost a decade ago, political unrest and a plummeting economy have led Venezuela to collapse. Hyperinflation, power cuts, shortages of food, water and essential medicines, as well as political persecution have pushed more than five million Venezuelans to leave their country, according to the IOM, of whom 79% are displaced to other South American countries.

Venezuelan migration started with highly skilled professionals, who could afford to travel and settle in other countries without too many problems, but increasingly included poor working class people. Experts say the volume of this emigration is comparable to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Marcela Tapia, a researcher at the Institute for International Studies at Arturo Prat University in Iquique, said that every day on her way to work she saw hundreds of Venezuelans camping on the beach or on the streets.

“What has changed here more recently is the impact of the pandemic and border closures to stop Covid-19,” she said. “Those who have come in recent months are entering illegally and we estimate that only a third of them came directly from Venezuela. The rest came from Colombia, Ecuador or Peru because they lost their jobs there. “

Tapia said she recently took a woman and her four children, including a baby, to a shelter. The woman told Tapia she hitchhiked from Venezuela to Chile after her husband abandoned her, hoping to reach relatives in Santiago.

“They went days without eating, depending on charity to survive,” Tapia said.

Chile is one of the richest countries in the region and a natural draw for migrants looking for work. But the journey through the village of Colchane – a common migration point on the border with Bolivia – is dangerous and involves walking for long hours across a high plateau over 12,000 feet above sea level, experts said. . According to the mayor of Colchane, speaking to a local radio station on Tuesday, 15 people have died this year trying to reach Chile, a number higher than ever in the country.
A migration crisis explodes in Latin America
Meanwhile, many Haitian migrants – once the fastest growing group of immigrants in Chile – choose to leave the country after years of overt racism and new government policies that make it increasingly difficult for them to meet visa requirements and work legally. Thousands of Haitians formerly living in Brazil and Chile arrived in Texas in September and spent days in makeshift shelters in Del Rio, gaining worldwide attention.
“There are already tensions in the region both because of the Venezuelan migratory flows and the flows from Central America, and I think Haitians pose a particular challenge for some of these countries because they have been ignored for so long. Said Caitlyn Yates, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, who has worked on the mobility experiences of transnational migrants moving in and across Latin America.

“We are going to see very tense situations in the weeks or months to come,” she added.

‘At first I wanted to go back to Bolivia’

The Covid-19 restrictions have also exacerbated unauthorized border crossings and crushes at bottlenecks, said Jorge Martínez, a researcher at the Latin American and Caribbean Center of Demography.

In Iquique, the migrant population has increased in part because many migrants do not have the Covid-19 vaccine required to continue their bus journey or simply cannot afford to continue their journey, experts say. This is also happening in other countries, where border closures have trapped some migrants in a kind of limbo.

“There are people who were migrating when the pandemic started,” Doña-Reveco said.

“They wanted to go to Chile, for example, where parents were going to give them work. But when they arrived in Peru, the borders were closed, and they could not continue to Chile. Their whole plan went away. is collapsed. They have run out of money, have no contact and are stuck in makeshift camps. “

In several countries, authorities have often been unable or unwilling to adequately meet the basic needs of vulnerable migrants in such situations. It was only after last month’s violence in Iquique that the Chilean government announced a series of emergency aid measures for migrants in the north of the country: rue; a center to provide them with health care; and a drop-in center to help those planning to travel to other parts of the country, where they have relatives, to reach their destination.

“Governments have a responsibility to protect these people to avoid the precariousness and negative reactions of local populations,” Martínez said. “International agreements have been signed and Latin American countries should coordinate their action plans to deal with this emergency.”

A 26-year-old woman who did not want her name published because she feared deportation told CNN that she left Bolivia with her sister at the end of July. Neither could find a job in their home country, and the few jobs she tried – cleaning houses, as a cashier in a supermarket and in the production line of ‘a drug manufacturing company – paid less than the local minimum wage. Both have children to feed.

They paid smugglers to take them to Chile first by minibus, then on foot, crossing the altitude and cold of the Bolivian altiplano. “It was really scary because I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” she said. “We didn’t know if we were going to be burgled, the cold was terrible, my head ache and because of the altitude, I had the impression that my ears were going to explode. I almost did. pass out. “

During her journey, she has seen entire families with young children pass through. Once in Chile, she was shocked by the number of migrants living on the streets. “It made me very sad; I wanted to cry,” she said. “You see a lot of things you couldn’t imagine, like parents stealing so they could feed their children. At first I wanted to go back to Bolivia, but I couldn’t imagine having to cross like this again.”