Chile sees migrant crossings rise ahead of presidential vote

COLCHANE, Chile — A merciless sun seared the migrants as they walked through one of the driest places in the world, trying to illegally cross the border from Bolivia into Chile fearing it might soon be closed.

It has become common in recent months to see migrants trudging across the Atacama Desert but the flow appears to have increased in recent days ahead of Chile’s presidential runoff Sunday. They fear that Jose Antonio Kast, the far-right candidate for Chile’s presidency will not close the border like he had promised in his campaign.

The conservative lawmaker, who has defended Chile’s military dictatorship, finished first in the country’s presidential election in November but did not get enough votes to win outright setting up a runoff against leftist Gabriel Boric. Kast stated that he would order the construction of a ditch in order to stop migrants crossing from Bolivia.

Immigration has been a recurring topic in Chile’s presidential campaign as the country sees an increasing flow of migrants, mainly from Venezuela, but also from nations like Haiti and Colombia. This is a controversial issue. Recently, there was an attack on Venezuelan migrants by Chileans in Iquique near Bolivia’s border.

The U.N. International Organization for Migration estimates there are almost 1.7 million immigrants in Chile. Only this year, Chilean authorities have registered more than 25,000 people arriving through the Atacama Desert, a significant increase compared to the 16,500 for all 2020.

“We have relatives here in Chile who told us that we had to go before Dec. 19, because if the one who won the first round (Kast) wins again, he will close all borders,” said Rayber Rodriguez, a Venezuelan traveling with his wife and daughter.

Tatiana Castro, a Colombian who also crossed into Chile through the desert, put it bluntly. “We had to cross right now for fear that they would send us back.”

She said people “do not know how hard it is, that we have to go through many countries and across many borders where it is hard for us, we have to endure hunger… cold weather.”

The border has been guarded for months by the police and the army, though migrants cross using different paths in the desert in plain sight. This border was not visible until a few years ago. It now looks more like a transit zone for a train station.

Once in Chilean territory, migrants are not detained. Others walk to the nearest city, while others surrender to authorities to begin a process to help them regularize their immigration status.

Colchane, a Chilean town near the border with fewer than 1,600 inhabitants, mostly Indigenous Aymara, has seen a constant flow of migrants in recent months. The migrants sometimes outnumber the locals.

“We can’t take it anymore”, said Nicolas Mamani Gomez, who wants Kast to win, so “no more immigrants will come.”

Some of the migrants walk further after crossing the border and make it to the city of Iquique.

There, some of the migrants have been living in public parks and beaches. Not all residents are content. A group of locals set fire to the belongings of Venezuelans who were living in a camp a few weeks back.

Virginia Carrasco, a 30 years-old Venezuelan, crossed the desert and entered into Chile with her three children — 11 and 8 years old, and a baby of six months — looking for a better life.

Carrasco said she wants a better health care system for them.

“In Venezuela’s hospitals you get nothing,” she said, as she dragged a cart filled with suitcases, bags and backpacks. There are many people who died due to inability to get medical care or doctor’s treatment. I expect a better quality of life for my children in Chile, that’s why I came here.”

Luna reported from Santiago, Chile.

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