Chilean elections unlikely to end new immigration barriers

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On November 21, the Chileans will go to the polls to nominate their next president. The decision will have an impact on the persistence of the status quo or the final break with the legacy of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet. With the entry into force of a new migration law in 2022 and the main candidates running on very contrasting electoral platforms, the implications for migrants arriving in the country are considerable.

Electoral context

Chile’s last presidential election in 2017 appeared to be an endorsement for more of the same, with the presidency alternating between former center-left coalition leader Michelle Bachelet and right-wing incumbent Sebastian Piñera for the second time since 2006. But with only 46% of Chileans voting in the first round, there was a clear lack of interest in the political process which has since turned into discontent.

In October 2019, public anger came to a head when the mass protests erupted in Santiago, sparked by rising costs of public transport, and has spread across the country in a challenge to Chile’s longstanding inequality. After 29 deaths and approximately US $ 3.5 billion in infrastructure damage, reforms were undertaken and a new emphasis was placed on replace the 1980 constitution introduced under the military dictatorship of Pinochet.

Even against the backdrop of intensifying anti-government protests and the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration remained a key issue as elections approached.

Migration to Chile

Historically, Chile’s migrant population has been more European and smaller than that of its South American neighbors. However, the number of people entering Chile from other parts of Latin America has grown rapidly over the past decade, tripling over the past three years to reach 1.5 million, with arrivals resulting from humanitarian crises in Haiti (around 180,000) and Venezuela (approximately 460,000).

While under Bachelet (2014-2018), the current United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, immigration laws required no visa and only a formal employment contract to obtain temporary residence, under Piñera , the restrictions have tightened considerably.

In 2018, Piñera introduced the Humanitarian return policy under which migrants could be returned free of charge to their country of origin provided they did not return for nine years. 1,800 people were deported in 2020, some of whom deportation flights staged for media consumption.

New law

A new migration law will also enter into force in mid-2022, requiring migrants to provide additional documents to qualify for a one-year consular visa. These visas are often expensive, difficult to obtain, and in some cases expire after three months. They will also only be accessible to those who have arrived in Chile before March 18, 2020, when the government closed the country’s land borders during the pandemic. The law will do compulsory consular visas, prohibit adjustments from a tourist permit to a temporary stay and make it more difficult to switch from temporary to permanent status once in the country. Furthermore, only those who have resided in Chile for at least 24 months will be able to benefit from state-funded social security.

Although limited, the government has a program which commits it to supporting the work of individual municipalities in the fields of migrant integration and intercultural exchanges. On a national level, the Escuela Somos Todos, supports students at school regardless of their migration status. The Migrant Compromise was also created to inspire private companies and unions to take a non-discriminatory and inclusive approach to hiring and management, connecting laureates with the support of agencies such as the International Labor Office (ILO ) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, this initiative is somewhat undermined by employers who have to pay for the return travel of employees and family members after the contract ends. This has led migrants to work informally, often with lower wages than the local population already grappling with the cost of living, thus fueling xenophobic sentiment.

Polarize candidates

Jose Antonio Kast, a strong supporter of Pinochet’s constitution, capitalized on recent anti-migrant protests along Chile’s northern borders to become the presidential frontrunner. In the city of Iquique, thousands of inhabitants gathered to protest against the presence of migrants after a year-old Venezuelan settler camp was cleared by police. The protests culminated in the burning of settler property over a bonfire. Kast has since offers Chile’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, the digging of border ditches with its northern neighbors and the creation of a body within the investigative police to “actively seek [and deport] illegal migrants ”.

In contrast, his 35-year-old opponent, the leader of the left-wing Frente Amplio party, Gabriel Boric, who until recently at the top of the polls, spoke about the lack of deportations and access to visas and housing for migrants. However, following Kast’s rise, he reneged on his commitments to provide access to housing, noting an increase in 500,000 shortfall in the national housing supply, and stressed the need to work on a regional basis to establish a quota system to share the burden. Chile is the third largest beneficiary of the exodus of more than 5 million people from Venezuela, after Colombia and Peru.

What next?

The government having given the army a role of border control, short term they said they would continue with the “expulsions from all public spaces” as well as the “expulsion plan” of undocumented migrants.

Regardless of who wins the election, the strict provisions of the new migration law is likely to contribute to an increase in the number of irregular migrants.

Boric remains the favorite to win in the event of a second round of voting, but in the face of growing anti-migrant sentiment, he seems to be giving way on his policy of open borders.

Even if he maintains his commitment, the process of making Chile both ready and welcoming for immigrants (with an average of 200 arrivals per day) will not be straightforward. The Piñera administration has struggled to rule without a majority in both chambers, and the polarized nature of Chilean politics means Boric would likely struggle to implement his liberal agenda without a majority.

Last year there was an 80% increase Haitian migrants leaving the country, such was the cold reception that many received. While an inclusive new constitution may be approved next year, it will be the policies and investments that follow that will determine whether Chile can fully utilize the potential of immigrants and work with regional partners to achieve a lasting solution.

If Kast wins, despite the same governability challenges, it seems likely that he would seek to build on the new law – and in so doing, prioritize regional collaboration, downplay support for integration and to introduce physical borders, forcing migrants on more difficult journeys in the process. Since January 2021, at least six immigrants have died after crossing the Andes and entering the Atacama Desert.

The new migration law requires the government to review its national immigration policy at least every four years. This could lead to politically motivated changes creating instability for current and future immigrants, as well as for Chilean society as a whole.


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