(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.
A migration crisis is ballooning in Latin America
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.
"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