Chile sees migrant crossings increase ahead of presidential vote

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View of squatter houses in La Mula neighborhood in Alto Hospicio, Chile, Sunday December 12, 2021 (AP Photo / Matias Delacroix)

View of squatter houses in La Mula neighborhood in Alto Hospicio, Chile, Sunday December 12, 2021 (AP Photo / Matias Delacroix)

PA

A ruthless sun scorched the migrants as they passed through one of the driest places in the world, trying to illegally cross the Bolivian border into Chile, fearing it would soon be closed.

It has become common in recent months to see migrants crossing the Atacama Desert, but the flow appears to have increased in recent days leading up to the Chilean presidential runoff on Sunday. Migrants fear that if far-right candidate José Antonio Kast wins, he will close the border as he promised during his campaign.

The conservative lawmaker, who has defended Chile’s military dictatorship, finished first in the country’s presidential election in November, but failed to secure enough votes to win a run-off against leftist Gabriel Boric. Kast said he would order a ditch to be built to prevent migrants from crossing Bolivia.

Immigration has been a recurring topic in Chile’s presidential campaign as the country sees an increasing flow of migrants, mainly from Venezuela, but also from countries like Haiti and Colombia. It’s a matter of division and recently there was a widely publicized case of Chileans attacking Venezuelan migrants in Iquique, near the border with Bolivia and Peru.

The United Nations International Organization for Migration estimates that there are nearly 1.7 million immigrants in Chile. This year alone, Chilean authorities have recorded more than 25,000 people arriving through the Atacama Desert, a significant increase from 16,500 for all of 2020.

“We have relatives here in Chile who have told us that we have to leave before December 19, because if whoever won 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 entered Chile through the desert, put it bluntly. “We had to cross right away lest they send us back.”

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

The border has been guarded for months by the police and the army, although migrants take different paths in the desert for all to see. The border area was empty until a few years ago. Now it looks like the transit area of ​​a train terminal.

Once on Chilean territory, migrants are not detained. Some continue to walk to the nearest town while others surrender to authorities so they can start a process that could help them regularize their immigration status.

Colchane, a Chilean town close to the border with less than 1,600 inhabitants, mostly indigenous Aymara, has seen a constant flow of migrants in recent months. Sometimes the migrants outnumber the local population.

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

Some migrants walk further after crossing the border into the city of Iquique.

There, some of the migrants live in public parks and beaches. And all the inhabitants are not happy. A few weeks ago, residents attacked a camp where Venezuelans were staying and burned their property.

Virginia Carrasco, a 30-year-old Venezuelan, crossed the desert and entered Chile with her three children – 11 and 8, and a six-month-old baby – in search of a better life.

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

“In hospitals in Venezuela you don’t get anything,” she said, as she dragged a cart full of suitcases, bags and backpacks. “There are people who have died because they cannot get medicine or doctors. I expect a better quality of life for my children in Chile, which is why I came here.

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Luna reported from Santiago, Chile.

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