CIVICUS speaks with Delio Cubides, migration legal advisor at the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute (INCAMI), about the situation of migrants in Chile, and the restrictive measures and mass expulsions that took place this year. Founded in 1955, INCAMI is a civil society organisation dedicated to supporting migrants in Chile, including through providing reception services, social assistance, advice on document regularisation, training and support in finding employment.
How did Chile get into its current situation of anti-migrant protests and mass expulsions?
To answer this question, we should place ourselves in the international context, to which Chile is no stranger. Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of migrants from non-border countries, such as Venezuela and Haiti, which has surpassed the inflow from border countries.
To a certain extent, Chile has been viewed in the region as a country with security and institutional and economic stability, while since 2013 the political, social and economic situation in Venezuela has led to an exponential increase in the inflow of people from that country, with a peak in 2013 and another in 2018, despite the fact that, unlike Haitian migration, there is no family reunification visa for Venezuelans in Chile.
Faced with this increase in migration, the current administration of Sebastián Piñera began to adopt restrictive measures; 30 days after taking office in 2018, it enacted a policy aimed at limiting the entry of Haitians and Venezuelans. Haitian migration was heavily restricted by the implementation of a simple consular tourist visa for entry into Chile and, like other migrants, also by the elimination of the work contract visa.
Although we do not have exact figures, we know that the rejection rate for consular visas requested by Haitians has been high; testimonies from Haitian migrants that we deal with in our offices report numerous rejections for reasons beyond their control or due to requirements they are unable to comply with.
For example, in order to grant a permanent stay permit to migrants already present in Chile, the government requires a criminal record certificate that must be obtained from the consulate of the country of origin. In the case of countries such as Haiti, the high cost and lengthy processing time in the country of origin is compounded by the fact that, in the current political, social and health context, the certificate is almost impossible to obtain. As a result, many people are unable to submit it within the established deadlines. This requirement is currently limiting access by hundreds of people of Haitian origin to the so-called ‘extraordinary regularisation process’.
For migrants from Venezuela, a consular visa requirement known as a ‘democratic accountability visa’ was imposed in 2019. But the desperate situation in Venezuela continued to push people to migrate despite the obstacles, as migration restrictions do not address the causes of migration.
What these measures did not achieve, the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic did: in November 2020 the government suspended around 90,000 visa procedures for Venezuelan applicants, and many others who had already been granted their visas or had their final interview scheduled could not enter Chile because the suspension of international flights prevented them from doing so within the 90-day period established by law; therefore, their applications were administratively closed without any consideration for the pandemic situation.
Many people have filed amparo appeals – writs for protection of constitutional rights – and have managed to have their cases reopened, but Chile has clearly opted for a strategy of restriction. All these measures were taken to regulate and control a migratory flow that was growing, but many of us see it as a reflection of the lack of empathy for the humanitarian reality that these people are going through in their countries of origin. Many of them had requested protection or were in the process of reuniting with their families, and their projects were cut short either by the pandemic or by administrative restrictions.
Is Chilean society polarised around the issue of migration?
I don’t see such polarisation. The situation in the city of Iquique, where in September 2021 there was a march against the arrival of migrants, was an isolated event. It was also the result of the stress that can build up in a situation of coexistence in undignified conditions, a result of the lack of public policies capable of anticipating the drama of this humanitarian crisis.
On social media, opinions are polarised and people say many things, but these positions have not materialised in marches on the capital, Santiago de Chile, or in other cities. On the contrary, in Iquique we have seen migrants on the streets in extremely difficult conditions, and city residents welcoming and helping them to the best of their ability.
The situation in Iquique was also one of exclusion from the possibility of regularisation of people who entered through unauthorised passages, a direct result of Law No. 21.325 on Migration and Aliens passed in April this year. In the previous regularisation process in 2018, migrants who entered through unauthorised passages were allowed to register, although no work permits were granted. Migrants know this is the case, but they prefer this precarious situation to going hungry in their countries of origin.
In the context of the pandemic, because of health restrictions, many migrants were forced to stay in public places, unable to go anywhere else, undocumented and excluded from social benefits. This created difficulties for local residents, as well as for the migrants themselves who lacked state assistance.
It was only after some Venezuelan migrants died while crossing the border that the Chilean state began to provide assistance, on the understanding that they were in fact refugees or asylum seekers.
What should the state do in this situation?
The state has an obligation to provide a solution to this situation. An alternative could be for it to coordinate with the private sector, which is in need of workers, especially in construction, agriculture, services and in some professional categories. The situation of people fitting these profiles could be regularised through coordination with the private sector, providing them with training and job placement. This would provide a different perspective on migration and would help avoid situations of dependency and lack of autonomy.
It seems that restrictions are not the best solution. Restrictions do not stop migration, and instead deepen the violations of migrants’ rights, as they make them susceptible to the challenges of the labour market and the housing rental market and limit their access to basic rights such as health and education. They are also of no use to the authorities, who do not know where migrants are, who they are, how many they are or how they have arrived.
Over the entire recent period since Chile returned to democracy, none of a series of governments developed a real migration policy that reformed and updated existing regulations. The current government has been the only one to propose a change in the law on migration and in migration management, but, due to the context and the pressure of migratory flows, it has turned out to be a restrictive policy, or at least one that seeks to limit the flow. It is a policy that discourages people from entering the country, driving those in a regular situation to exhaustion due to eternal waits to obtain documents, lack of communication by migration authorities and bureaucratic centralisation in Santiago.
We are now in the middle of an election campaign, and in such times migration can be exploited to win votes. The government programmes of all the candidates have very limited information on this issue, but all who have spoken about it have done so in a restrictive tone. I think the problem lies there, more than in the fact that there is xenophobia within society. It seems that migrants only begin to be heard when they become an electoral force, which in Chile is just beginning to happen.
How adequate is the new law to achieving ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration?
Law 21.325 reflects well the position of this administration on the issue of migration. It should be remembered that in December 2018 Chile refused to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, arguing that each country should retain its sovereignty to set its migration rules, even though Chile had been one of the countries that had led its drafting process.
The new law has some positive aspects and enshrines some rights, such as the rights to health, education, family reunification and work. It includes visas for minors and gives consideration to people with disabilities and women, giving them protection in certain specific cases such as pregnancy, smuggling and trafficking and gender-based violence. It decentralises the revalidation of diplomas and increases the administration’s presence in Chile’s regions. It also gives people with dependent visas autonomy to develop an economic activity.
Although these rights are not currently refused, they are not guaranteed by law either, but rather recognised administratively, which makes them somewhat fragile.
At the same time, the new law represents a shift in migration management. Until now, the law allowed for changes of status within the national territory, but the new law will not allow this: all visas must be obtained from consulates in the migrants’ countries of origin. This will give the administration the ultimate decision on how many migrants to allow in, which and under what conditions. This is perhaps the biggest change introduced by the new law. Only in some cases will certain people be allowed to change their migration status, but this will depend on the content of the regulatory degree that is issued to implement the new law.
What work is the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute doing in this context?
As it is beyond our reach to tackle the causes of migration, we defend the rights of migrants. Our objectives are to welcome, protect and integrate them.
We advocate with the authorities, which sometimes comes at a cost. This is necessary work because although there are migrants’ organisations, they tend to be organised around one person, a leader, and are not highly institutionalised. There are organisations for Colombians, Ecuadorians, Haitians and Venezuelans, among others. There is also Chile’s National Immigrants’ Coordination, which brings together several organisations, has a presence in protests and social media, and includes several Haitian, Peruvian and Venezuelan collectives.
We also provide legal advice, which is what is most lacking in Chile, due to a lack of access to information, which is not promoted by the authorities who should be attending to migrants. We help with online forms and procedures and provide social assistance, particularly in the form of shelter, as there are no state-run shelters for migrants.
Everything that exists in Chile in the area of migrants’ reception and services is the result of civil society initiatives, largely by organisations, institutions and services of the Catholic Church. INCAMI is the Catholic Church’s main body on migration issues: through the work teams of the Pastoral of Human Mobility (PMH) in each of Chile’s regions, we coordinate the reception and care of migrants with other Church bodies. Our resources are limited, but during the pandemic we have opened churches to receive women and children and we have provided all the attention we could through social media.
We listen to what people need, something the authorities don’t do. With the help of some municipalities, we accompanied the return of thousands of people not only from neighbouring Bolivia, but also from Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and other countries.
Our migration teams travel not only within the Metropolitan Region of Santiago but also to Chile’s regions, to visit the municipalities with the greatest presence of migrants and offer them the possibility of regularising their status, obtaining a visa, working under fair conditions, contributing to the social security system and accessing their fundamental rights. Sometimes we do this with the support of PMH teams in the regions, government authorities or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
What support do organisations defending the rights of migrants in Chile need from the international community?
We face a regional challenge that requires a regional response. States should coordinate an international approach to migration, as is already being done by the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), led by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the IOM. Further progress is needed in this process, as the Venezuelan situation is far from over.
In order to assist migrants while doing very necessary advocacy work, we need resources: staple foods to assemble basic food baskets and economic resources to pay for accommodation, among other things. It is important to remember that migrants are not the problem, but rather the symptom of realities undergoing deeper transformation, and most of them require protection.
Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @INCAMIchile and @JosDelioCubides on Twitter.