ANTOFAGASTA – Walking in the downtown (Centro) of the northern Chilean city of Antofagasta, the most important city in the Chilean copper industry and a big source of the country’s income, visitors see hundreds of restaurants, bars and hairdressers for non-Chileans, who came from Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and mostly from Colombia.
Behind the Metropolitan region, Antofagasta region is the second in the country in which immigrants choose to reside, which is why Chileans call it “Antofolombia”.
Late in 2017, official figures estimated that 40,000 Colombians live in Antofagasta (a quarter of the total in Chile), and 20,000 Bolivians, Peruvians and Venezuelans.
Those immigrants choose Antofagasta because it has an income per person of US$ 37,000 per year, which is considered as high as salaries in France and Italy, and even above the averages of other Chilean cities.
Low crime, high education
In Antofagasta, they also enjoy the low crime rates and good health and education systems that, compared to Colombia and to other South American countries, look more like the ones in European countries.
Various Colombian migrants came to Chile from the city of Buenaventura, which is known for its high rates of poverty, illiteracy, drugs trafficking and lack of education, employment and infrastructure.
“We started with a plastic chair”
In spite of that, some have managed to move to the middle class, as is the case of Jorge Hurtado, who has been in Antofagasta for six years and has one of the busiest men’s hairdressers in the city.
“We started with a plastic chair and two old mirrors,” he said.
He spent three years, “without going to nightclubs, and worked 12 hours a day.”
Racism toward Colombians
Dozens of those Colombians started their own business, mostly as hairdressers. Chilean citizens say Colombian hairdressers are the best in South America, and this is what visitors see when visiting downtown Antofagasta.
Seeing Colombians and other immigrants enjoying their freedom in Antofagasta does not mean they came to this city easily. They face insults on a daily basis, such as “They are like Pablo Escobar, Colombians are whores and drug traffickers, or they are thieves.”
A Colombian lady in her 50s, who refused to mention her name, said things are not as smooth as she thought.
“The way to here is not easy,” she said. “We came to Chile because we escaped from the violence and the Mafia that is strangling our country.”
Colombians and others, who wish to reach this nation, are confronted by xenophobia and a growing mafia of human smugglers.
Tackling illegal immigration
To ensure safe, orderly and regular immigration for foreigners entering Chile, President Sebastián Piñera announced in April last year instructions for the Immigration Bill and measures to regulate and help the new illegal immigrants.
Compared to other regions however, the number of immigrants seeking regularization is low, with a number of 6,342.
The governor of Antofagasta, Katherine López, said that the immigrants who refused to regularize, should fear being expelled from the country. She noted that many may fear regularization “is a measure to expel them. However, it is about the opposite, to regularize their situations.”
Despite the new regulations, dozens of campamentos (refugee camps) were built haphazardly at the tops of the northern hills of Antofagasta. Some of the local Chileans believe that those areas are the most dangerous in the city, where even police cannot go easily.
Eduardo Morales, a Chilean in his 30s, said that a lot of crime takes place in those areas, and the murderers are mostly Colombians.
“The murderers are either drug traffickers or weapons dealers,” he added.
“Chile is much better than Colombia”
Johny, a 30-year-old Colombian, lives in the northern part of Antofagasta. He has a house made of tin plates, on which he hung the Chilean flag. He said that many Colombians have come to Chile for work and to start a new future, but there are others who come to commit crimes, “which made the Chileans use that against us, the good ones, not against the criminals.”
“Chile is much better than Colombia. This is our home, and we are grateful that Chile has opened its doors for us, and that Chileans welcome us.”
To fight the crimes Antofagasta currently suffers, President Piñera discussed new migration regulations when he paid a visit to the northern city. The President stated he would defend the Chilean borders with “machetes if necessary”.
“We will close our doors to stop those who come to cause damage, to commit crimes and those who come to alter public order,” he added.
In spite of that, Piñera welcomes those wanting to enter Chile for tourism or trade, saying that, “our philosophy is simple; our doors are open for those who want to come and to comply with our laws and to those who want to help developing Chile.”
Mohammad Arafat, 26, is a graduate of the Islamic University of Gaza, where he studied English. He aspires to become “a voice for people, expressing their hopes and pains, helping them pursue their dreams in the face of adversity and demonstrating that every life matters.” A freelance writer, Mohammad already has self-published his own book, “Still Living There,” which he disseminates through Amazon.