Demonstrators burn a makeshift camp for Venezuelan migrants during a protest against illegal migration in Iquique, Chile on September 25.
CNN  — 

One recent Saturday morning, Cristina Oyarzo, a 41-year-old historian who lives in the coastal Chilean city of Iquique, near the border with Bolivia, felt unusually nervous. Like many other residents, she had seen on social media that there would be an anti-immigrant rally a few hours later and she worried things could get out of hand. She was right.

In the past few months, Iquique has become a stop-over for many Latin American migrants escaping poverty and political upheaval in their countries. Tensions between the throngs of migrants and the local population have progressively escalated. On Saturday September 25, they reached a boiling point, when thousands of people participated in anti-immigrant protests that culminated in violence when some attacked a large group of Venezuelan migrants.

Oyarzo, who went out to document the rally, said she reached the city’s waterfront and saw a group of protesters stop seven young Venezuelans, one of them missing a leg, and try to physically attack them. Other people intervened, but the attackers managed to snatch the migrants’ backpacks and told them they were “criminals” and “thieves.”

“It was terrible!” Oyarzo said. “The migrants were desperate because they were trapped between their attackers and the sea. They had no way out.”

Elsewhere in the city, protesters held Chilean flags and placards with messages that read “Dirty Venezuelans leave our country” or “Human Rights are for Chileans,” and chanted the national anthem. They yelled at the migrants, many of them families with young children, to go back to their country. Some even spat at them and set migrants’ clothes, strollers, toys, and mattresses on fire.

The violence in Iquique, a city of about 200,000 people, reflects a rising tension over migration across Latin America. The historic Venezuelan exodus, large numbers of Haitians moving through the continent and other regional migrants who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic have built up to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region.

Venezuelan migrants who cross the border from Bolivia to Chile search for refuge in the desert after crossing five South American countries.

Changing patterns

“We have always had migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Cristián Doña-Reveco, Director of the Office for Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“What is changing are the patterns, the governments´ response to the different flows and the effect they have on migrants´ lives.”

In mid-2020, international migrants represented 2.6% of South America’s whole population, a significant increase from the less than 1% registered in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Almost 80% of them originated from somewhere else in South America and many are now on the move due to increasingly hardline stances on immigration in several countries, and because the pandemic has exacerbated already difficult living conditions and made jobs scarce.

Between 2000 and 2017, several South American leaders – including presidents in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia – pushed for more progressive immigration laws that made it easier for migrants to cross borders, work legally and obtain resident visas. But the trend in policy has since reversed, with restrictions on movement gaining momentum.

In Argentina, for instance – the top destination for migrants in South America – then-president Mauricio Macri passed a 2017 decree to limit immigrants’ entry and facilitate deportation, prompting harsh criticism by the United Nations. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera also toughened immigration policies.

Political tumult has also added pressure. Massive protests in Chile and Colombia, a coup in Bolivia, a political crisis that saw three different men assume Peru’s presidency within one week, and the entrenchment of Venezuela’s authoritarian regime have pushed millions of Latin Americans to set off in search of a better life.

“While traditionally there were Latin American countries that were the final destination for many migrants, currently all countries in the region have both migrants coming in to settle down and passing through,” said Doña-Reveco.

Venezuelans are central to the region’s current humanitarian crisis. Since Nicolás Maduro took power almost a decade ago, political turmoil and a plummeting economy have led Venezuela to collapse. Hyperinflation, power cuts, shortage of food, water and essential medication, as well as political persecution have pushed more than five million Venezuelans to leave their country, according to the IOM, of which 79% have moved to other nations in South America.

Venezuelan migration started with highly skilled professionals, who had the means to travel and settle in other countries without much trouble, but it increasingly has included poor, working-class people. Experts say the volume of this emigration is comparable to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Marcela Tapia, a researcher at the Institute of International Studies of the University Arturo Prat in Iquique, said that each day on her way to work she sees hundreds of Venezuelans camping on the beach or in the streets.

“What has changed here more recently is the impact of the pandemic and the border closures to stop Covid-19,” she said. “Those who have been coming in the past few months are entering illegally and we estimate that only one-third of them traveled directly from Venezuela. The rest came from Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru because they lost their jobs there.”

Tapia said she recently took a woman and her four children, including a baby, to a shelter. The woman told Tapia that she had hitchhiked from Venezuela to Chile after her husband abandoned her, in hopes of reaching relatives in Santiago.

“They spent days without eating, depending on charity to survive,” Tapia said.

Chile is one of the wealthiest countries in the region, and a natural draw for migrants looking for work. But the journey through the village of Colchane – a common point of migration on the border with Bolivia – is treacherous and involves walking long hours through a high plateau at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, experts said. According to the mayor of Colchane, speaking to a local radio station on Tuesday, 15 people died this year while trying to reach Chile, a number higher than ever before in the country.

Meanwhile, many Haitian migrants – once the fastest growing group of immigrants in Chile – are choosing to leave the country after years dealing with overt racism and new government policies that make it increasingly difficult for them to meet visa requirements and work legally. Thousands of Haitians formerly established in Brazil and Chile arrived in Texas in September, and spent days in makeshift shelters in Del Rio, drawing global attention.

“There already is tension through the region both because of the Venezuelan migration flows and the Central American flows, and I think that the Haitians pose a particular challenge for some of these countries because they have been ignored for so long,” said Caitlyn Yates, a Ph.D. student of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, who has worked on mobility experiences of transnational migrants moving in and through Latin America.

“We are going to see some very tense situations in the next weeks or months,” she added.

‘At first, I wanted to go back to Bolivia’

Covid-19 restrictions have also exacerbated unauthorized border crossings and crushes at chokepoints, said Jorge Martínez, a researcher at the Latin American and Caribbean Center of Demographics.

In Iquique, the migrant population has swelled in part because many migrants don´t have the Covid-19 vaccine required to continue their travel by bus or just can´t afford to continue their journey, experts say. This is happening in other countries as well, where border closures have trapped some migrants in a sort of limbo.

“There are people who were migrating when the pandemic started,” said Doña-Reveco.

“They wanted to go to Chile, for instance, where relatives were going to give them jobs. But when they reached Peru, borders closed, and they couldn’t continue to Chile. Their whole plan collapsed. They ran out of money, have no contacts and are stuck in makeshift camps.”

In several countries, authorities have often been unable or unwilling to respond adequately to the basic needs of vulnerable migrants in such situations. Only after last month’s violence in Iquique did the Chilean government announce a series of measures of emergency assistance for migrants in the north of the country: In addition to stricter border control, there will be new shelters or vouchers for lodging to keep migrants out of the street; a center to provide them with health care; and a reception center to help those planning to transit to other parts of the country, where they have relatives, reach their destination.

“Governments have the responsibility to protect those people to avoid the precarity and local populations’ negative reactions,” Martínez said. “There are international agreements that were signed, and Latin American countries should coordinate plans of action to face this emergency.”

One 26-year-old who didn’t want her name to be published because she fears being deported told CNN that she left Bolivia with her sister at the end of July. Neither could find work in their home country, and the few gigs that she tried — cleaning houses, as a cashier in a supermarket and in the production line of a drug manufacturing company – paid less than the local minimum wage. Both have children to feed.

They paid smugglers to take them to Chile first by minibus, then by foot, crossing through the altitude and cold of the Bolivian altiplano. “It was really scary because I didn´t know what would happen to us,” she said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get robbed, the cold was terrible, my head hurt, and because of the altitude, I felt as if my ears were going to explode. I almost fainted.”

During her journey, she saw entire families with small children crossing. Once in Chile, she was shocked by the number of migrants living in the streets. “It made me feel very sad; I felt like crying,” she said. “You see many things you couldn’t imagine, like parents stealing to be able to feed their children. At first, I wanted to go back to Bolivia, but couldn’t imagine having to cross like that again.”