Humanitarian Crisis in Northern Chile: Militarisation and Expulsion of Migrants

Over the following weeks, we will be covering immigration and border control in South and Central America, with posts on Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and Mexico, as well as the complex relationship between these countries. This new themed ongoing series has been organised by Ana AlivertiRimple Mehta and Andriani Fili, facilitated by Ritika Goyal, as part of their continuing work in expanding Border Criminologies in the Global South and building new networks and partnerships. While the issues highlighted in the posts affect millions of people, most discussions of border control focus upon realities in the Global North. This ongoing series attempts to fill this gap by presenting a view from the Global South. Do get in touch with us if you want to contribute a blog post in English or in Spanish.



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Guest post by Martina Cociña-Cholaky and Marcos Andrade-Moreno. Martina is a university professor and academic researcher in Chile. She received her PhD in Law and Political Science from the University of Barcelona, Spain, in 2019. Her research is focused on international migrationcriminologyracism and bordersMarcos is assistant professor of Philosophy Law at Universidad Austral de Chile. He received a PhD in Law from Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain). His doctoral thesis was entitled The Philosophical Foundations of the Margin of Appreciation Doctrine of the ECtHR (2017). His research focuses on international migrationvalue and legal pluralismhuman rights, and the dynamics of international law

The mass displacement of people, especially Venezuelans, has spurred a serious humanitarian crisis in northern Chile, to which the government of Sebastian Piñera has responded by militarising the border and expelling migrants. This post explores and criticises the government’s response by analysing the measures and policies that have been adopted.

Contextualising the humanitarian crisis

Since September 2020, the arrival of foreigners at the northern border of Chile has increased, reaching a peak the last weekend of January when 1,800 people (more than double the town’s inhabitants, currently estimated at 300) entered through Colchane, a rural town located in the highlands (Altiplano) at more than 3,500 meters above sea level. The mayor of Colchane, a town that has no sewers, pharmacies, supermarkets, and electricity 24 hours a day, reported that the government’s decision to close the borders with Bolivia due to the large number of foreign presence, making it difficult for inhabitants to buy even essential items, caused tensions in the village. Additionally, the local authority has refused to provide spaces belonging to the municipality to shelter Venezuelans, urging the central government to manage the situation. In a context of local incapacity and little government support, xenophobia rises, blaming increasing feelings of insecurity and the collapse of public services on migration.

According to the UNHCR, the Venezuelan crisis has affected almost five and a half million people, who have been forced to move to other nations. Chile has become one of the many destinations within the region, after Colombia and Peru. In Chile in 2019 there were more than 400,000 Venezuelans, which represented 30% of all migrants, who, in turn, constitute 7.8% of the national population; a comparatively lower figure, considering that the average of foreign-born population for OECD countries stands at 13.1%.

Venezuelans are fleeing not only hunger, the lack of essential supplies, instability and precariousness, but a nation that has been in social, economic and political turmoil for years. Despite this context, those who seek refuge elsewhere are faced with a series of adversities, due to the extensive journey and the lack of documents and/or resources, among others. Most of those who manage to set foot on Chilean soil arrive exhausted after crossing several countries. Testimonies show that they have paid more than 5,000 USD (3,600 GBP) to travel from Venezuela to Pisiga, a Bolivian border town. Despite the high sum, many migrants are left to their fate in the middle of the Andean highlands, a desert area surrounded by landmines.

The final part of the journey is particularly hard, considering that many enter the highlands on foot, where the altitude exceeds 4,000 meters above sea level and there is a great thermal oscillation, since during the day it is possible to reach 30 °C (86 ºF), while at night the temperature drops to -8 °C (17,60 ºF).

The death of five migrants have been attributed to low temperatures and the altitude. Their deaths exposed the deficiencies of a migratory system inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship, which has not been able to adequately meet the needs of migrants in the country. Migration in Chile is regulated with Decree Law 1,094, an executive rule dictated by the Government Junta, aimed mainly at preventing the entry of foreigners and expelling Allende’s followers. In addition, the law establishes specific migratory crimes such as irregular entry (with fake documents). Compounding matters, the National Security Doctrine configures a restrictive notion of human mobility, conceiving foreigners as enemies.

Government measures in the face of the crisis

The Chilean government's response to this humanitarian crisis has not only been deficient, but it has further aggravated the situation. President Piñera in February 2019 travelled to Cucuta, a Colombian city on the border of Venezuela, assuring Venezuelans that they would find refuge in Chile, adding that “there is nothing more perverse, more cruel, more inhumane than a regime that denies humanitarian aid to its own people, and that places the lives of more than 300,000 Venezuelans at risk. That has no forgiveness from God."

However, the reality on the ground has been different. Rather than facilitating their entry, the policy that the current administration has implemented has made it more difficult for those seekeing protection. On April 16, 2018, the so-called “democratic responsibility visa” came into force and in mid-2019 a consular tourist visa was imposed, which, in practice, have operated as barriers to the regular entry of Venezuelans. A look at the figures is telling.

A staggering 82% of tourist visas requested by Venezuelans have been rejected. The possibility of acquiring a “democratic responsibility visa” is just as bleak, as only a quarter of the visas requested has been granted. Worse still, amidst the pandemic the granting of visas has been paused. As a consequence, there has been an increase in irregulars arrivals: in 2018 they doubled and in 2019 they exceeded 8,000, where Venezuelans represent more than half of the people who were entering through non-authorised crossing-points. In addition, since March 2020, due to the pandemic, international borders have been closed for the transit of people, which has aggravated the migratory situation.

By establishing visas as a requirement to enter the country, the Chilean government has reduced migration to a simple equation, regular/irregular. Using an astute and efficient tactic, the administration suggests that while foreigners in a regular situation will always be welcome and will be able to enjoy their rights, those who enter irregularly will be excluded and will not be able to exercise their guarantees.

The administration continues on the path of exceptionality, this time expanding the powers of the Armed Forces in the border area, by modifying Decree 265 of 2019 of the Ministry of Defence, which had already been temporarily extended. Thus, on February 4th, the Presidential Decree was published authorizing the collaboration of the Armed Forces with civil and police authorities in Colchane, not only for drug trafficking and transnational organised crime, but also for the illicit trafficking of migrants, materially extending the original authorisation.

The “Colchane Plan”, implemented by the government, involves the increase of military presence in the area and the expulsion of migrants. According to the Minister of the Interior, on February 10th, 2021 the government carried out a collective expulsion of migrants whereby 138 people were deported in a single day, 86 in a Chilean Air Force plane to Colombia and Venezuela, and 52 on buses to Peru and Bolivia. According to testimonies from Venezuelans, some of these expulsions were notified in the middle of the night (2am) by the Investigative Police, whose officials went to their residences. Migrants accuse the police of arriving  with flashlights, mocking them and making them sign a document that they did not understand, which indicated a period of only 24 hours to appeal the expulsion.

As María Emilia Tijoux, director of the "Network of racism and migrants," warns, this type of expulsion "reminds us of the worst moments of the dictatorship." Indeed, government strategies such as these are outrageous and intolerable in a country that prides itself on being democratic, since this type of conduct displayed by officials violates the due process that should be guaranteed in all expulsion proceedings. As a result, judicial remedies have been sought and in some cases, they have been successful. The Supreme Court has been ambivalent in the face of these remedies, confirming some expulsions and revoking others.

Criticising the handling of the crisis

There are three major criticisms of how the Chilean government has handled the humanitarian crisis on the northern border. First, decision-making and the implementation of measures have ignored recommendations by specialised international organisations on the situation of Venezuelans, especially the situation of children and adolescents. The government’s response is predicated upon the assumption that more obstacles will deter new arrivals. This shows a serious lack of understanding, since various studies show that, by establishing greater barriers, the displacement of people does not stop, but rather becomes more dangerous, as has happened in Chile, first with Dominican migrants, then with Haitians and now with Venezuelans.

This leads us to the second criticism: the legal treatment of human mobility is based on a state of emergency. The government has insisted, time and again, on adopting exceptional measures when managing migration. It did so, for example, with the so-called “Humanitarian Plan for Orderly Return of Foreigners”, which sought to limit the rights of migrants.

As can be seen, the response to the increase of arrivals at the northern Chilean border has been to govern by transforming exceptionality into rule, a policy that conceptualises migration from a restrictive approach, focused on population control. This regulation reduces mobility to a matter of order and security. In this context, the Department of Immigration and Migration, came to tender 15 planes for the "materialisation of expulsions", which is a manifestation of the path that the Administration has adopted in relation to human mobility. As Stang and Beniscelli argue, "there is a fiction of democracy when the demand for rights, or the control of the mobility of people within the territory or across its borders, is militarised."

This brings us to the third criticism, which is the lack of a coordinated multilateral response. The government, after having led regional efforts to promote the "Global Compact for Migration", withdrew from it in an untimely manner, renouncing to address mobility from a multilateral perspective. It is disappointing that one of the richest countries in Latin America, with a diplomatic corps with a tradition of excellence, has not promoted and led joint efforts among neighbouring nations to face the crisis. This shows the stubbornness of the current administration in addressing one of the most important issues of the 21st century, migration. In doing so, the Chilean government goes against the United Nations' efforts to respond to the crisis in 2021.

As the “Jesuit Migrant Service” stated in a public statement, it is time to give a comprehensive and continental response. Organisations of and for migrants have made similar statements, urging a Regional Humanitarian Plan that provides pertinent and territorial responses. To paraphrase President Piñera, there is nothing more perverse than denying humanitarian aid and putting the lives of so many people at risk. It is time the Chilean government lived up to the commitment to provide humanitarian aid and protection to those arriving at its borders.

Note: Preliminary versions of this post have been previously published in other media, however this constitutes a new, modified, and updated version.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cociña-Cholaky, M. and Andrade-Moreno, M. (2021). Humanitarian Crisis in Northern Chile: Militarisation and Expulsion of Migrants. Available at: [date]

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