COLCHANE – A little town in the Tarapacá region, near the Chile-Bolivia border is the epicenter of a humanitarian crisis, following the arrival of over 1,600 undocumented Venezuelans trying to enter the country. The Chilean government has failed to respond promptly as Colchane’s infrastructure is extremely limited. This is not the first time Chile’s institutions have been overwhelmed by the increasing number of refugees seeking asylum in the country.
Venezuela’s political turmoil has caused an unprecedented emigration, with as many as 80 percent of its residents fleeing to neighboring countries, putting pressure on governments as their capacities wear thin. Chile’s image as a prosperous and stable nation, or as President Sebastián Piñera put it, “an oasis,” has meant that as many as 450,000 Venezuelans have settled in the country. However, the country’s complicated immigration policy often makes it hard for foreigners to satisfy the numerous requirements to obtain legal residency, even though the Chilean state has signed several international agreements regarding immigration, equal gender rights, the environment, and human rights. As such, the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) establishes the government’s responsibility to grant asylum to those who require it.
In April 2018, the Piñera administration announced a new Migrations Law, which added a new Democratic Responsibility visa for Venezuelans, as an attempt to “ordenar la casa” (tidy up the house) as Piñera himself said at the time. In its initial formulation, the visa required apostilled passports and a series of documents that are very difficult – if not impossible – to access given Venezuela’s current situation with consulates and government offices shut to the public. A year later, in February 2019, Piñera flew to the Colombian-Venezuelan border and said that Chile would welcome Venezuelans. However, his administration has failed to address the fact that many Venezuelans are being forced out of their country and are not simply economic migrants as some believe.
Death On The Border
According to reports by Colchane’s local government, a 69-year-old Venezuelan man and a Colombian woman both died due to respiratory issues that worsened after crossing the border. A similar situation occurred less than three months ago in November 2020 when a 45-year-old woman died after trying to cross the border.
Chile’s land borders remain largely closed due to the pandemic, making it even more difficult for foreigners to enter the country legally. Current immigration law requires Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, and Venezuelans to apply for their visas from their home countries, which is practically impossible for the latter. Moreover, Piñera’s Democratic Responsibility visa is currently only available to those who already have family settled in Chile.
“A racist state since its foundation”
Chile’s recent immigration laws can be traced back to 1975, when the country was under dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. Back then, the country saw very little immigration as the law considered foreigners a threat to national security. As part of the junta’s economic agenda, however, concessions were made to highly skilled and wealthy immigrants from Europe, the US, and South Korea.
Nanette Liberona, an anthropologist and expert on immigration and transnational border issues at Universidad de Tarapacá in Iquique, told Chile Today that “the Chilean state has been a racist state since its foundation. The history of immigration laws here has had this strong racial component, especially in the beginning when it was proposed that Chile was part of a white homogenous race, denying the mestizo and indigenous origins present in our society.”
Chile’s immigration law has remained unchanged since the dictatorship. Despite this, in the early 2000s former President Michelle Bachelet pushed a program that allowed over 50,000 immigrants to regularize their status and signed a non-binding document to establish Chile as an immigration country. However, after nearly eight years of debate, Congress dispatched a new Immigration Law pushed by the Piñera administration, that, instead of providing solutions for undocumented immigrants, puts them in an even more vulnerable position.
Joane Florvil: Victim of an ignorant society
A 28-year-old Haitian citizen, Joane Florvil, made headlines in August 2017 when she was arrested for allegedly abandoning her baby. Florvil had gone to a Rights Protection Office in Santiago’s Lo Prado and asked a security guard to look after her baby, as she tried to find a translator to help her report a robbery her husband Wilfrid Fidele suffered.
Due to the language barrier, she could not explain the situation and the guard reported her to Carabineros for child abandonment. Her four-week arrest caused her a psychotic breakdown and, as a result, she hit her head against a concrete wall. She died two months after her arrest, and her then two-month-old daughter was put into the care of Chile’s Minors’ National Service, an institution that fails those it claims to protect and facilitates abuse.
Amid media coverage and public outcry, this incident put a spotlight on the treatment of Haitians in Chile. But Chile’s dominant right-wing media initially reported that Florvil had abandoned her daughter, misleading the public and judging the mother for her actions.
Liberona said that “institutions like Carabineros and the Investigations Police carry this ideology of a Chilean race that seeks to oppose the foreign population against the national population and reinforce nationalism, that very same nationalism instilled in their training to protect sovereignty, to keep the enemy off our soil.”
Until this evening, I had not heard the story of Joane Florvil, an immigrant to #Chile from #Haiti who died under mysterious circumstances in the custody of police in Lo Prado in 2017 https://t.co/qfzenEtkKo #joaneflorvil #BlackLivesMatter
— Michael Deibert (@michaelcdeibert) June 15, 2020
Two years after the event, the Supreme Court fined Lo Prado local administration CLP$250,000 (US$340) for discrimination against Florvil and ordered it to provide staff training for serving residents who do not speak Spanish.
Piñera’s recent actions only exacerbate the situation for undocumented immigrants, in Colchane and in the rest of the country. Last month, the president signed a decree that allows the army to take up police duties and carry out border control in the north and Interior Minister Rodrigo Delgado is set to visit the area later this week.
Liberona thinks that during a humanitarian crisis like the one in Colchane, solutions are needed instead of hurdles. She said, “we are far from getting any solutions, but we have to keep on demanding them.”
The expert added, “what is needed now is a humanitarian visa in the context of the pandemic, because the pandemic has meant less employment, making it harder to access housing due to income loss, and without a contract you cannot get a visa as the law currently requires it.”
Liberona also highlighted that there is an underutilized refugee law that Venezuelans could cite, given that they have been forced out of their home country due to the political turmoil.
If Chile is to be known as a nation open to immigration, a more comprehensive approach is needed to grant visas and to ensure that immigrants’ rights are protected and that they are able to access services and opportunities equally.