Chile sees migrant flow increase ahead of presidential vote


A merciless sun has scorched migrants as they traverse one of the driest places in the world, attempting to cross illegally from Bolivia into Chile for fear it might soon be closed.

It has become common for migrants to trudge across the Atacama desert in recent months, but flows appear to have increased in recent days ahead of the Chilean President’s departure on Sunday. Migrants fear that if far-right candidate José Antonio Kast wins, he will close the border as promised during his campaign.

The conservative lawmaker, who has defended Chile’s military dictatorship, came first in the country’s presidential election in November but did not have enough votes to win it outright, setting a race against leftist Gabriel Boric. Kast said he would order the construction of a ditch to prevent migrants from crossing into Bolivia.

Immigration has been a recurring theme during Chile’s presidential campaign as the country sees a growing influx of migrants, mainly from Venezuela but also from countries like Haiti and Colombia. It is a divisive issue and there has recently been a well-publicized case of Chileans attacking Venezuelan migrants in Iquique near the border with Bolivia and Peru.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimates there are nearly 1.7 million immigrants in Chile. This year alone, Chilean authorities have registered more than 25,000 arrivals through the Atacama desert, a significant increase from 16,500 for all of 2020.

“We have relatives here in Chile who told us we had to go before December 19, because if the winner of the first round (Kast) wins again, he will close all borders,” said Rayber Rodríguez, a Venezuelan traveling with his wife and daughter.

Tatiana Castro, a Colombian who also crossed the desert to Chile, is blunt. “We have to cross now lest they send us back.”

She said people “don’t know how difficult it is, we have to go through many countries and across many borders, where it is difficult for us, we have to endure hunger… the cold”.

The border has been guarded by the police and military for months, though the migrants crossing use different paths in the desert in plain sight. The border area was deserted until a few years ago. Now it looks like the transit area of ​​a train station.

Once on Chilean territory, the migrants are not detained. Some continue on foot to the nearest city while others submit themselves to the authorities so they can begin a process that can help them formalize their immigration status.

Colchane, a town near Chile’s border with less than 1,600 residents, mostly indigenous Aymara people, has seen a steady stream of migrants in recent months. Sometimes the migrants outnumber the local population.

Nicolás Mamani Gómez said: “We can’t take it anymore who wants Kast to win, so” no more immigrants will come. ”

Some migrants walk further after crossing the border and arriving in the city of Iquique.

There, some migrants lived in public parks and beaches. And not all residents are happy. A few weeks ago, some locals attacked a camp where Venezuelans were staying and burned their belongings.

Virginia Carrasco, 30, from Venezuela, crossed the desert and came to Chile with her 3 children – aged 11 and 8, and a 6-month-old baby – in search of a better life.

Carrasco said she wanted a better health care system for them.

“In Venezuelan hospitals, you get nothing,” she said as she pulled a trolley loaded with suitcases, bags and backpacks. “There are people who have died because there is no medicine or a doctor. I expect a better quality of life for my children in Chile, that’s why I came here”.


Luna reports from Santiago, Chile. Chile sees migrant flow increase ahead of presidential vote


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