Chilean Election Unlikely to Halt New Barriers to Immigration

Chilean Election Unlikely to Halt New Barriers to Immigration

On 21 November Chileans will go to the ballot box to decide on their next President. The decision will impact whether the status quo persists or a final rupture with the legacy of former dictator Augusto Pinochet follows. With a new Migration Law coming into effect in 2022 and leading candidates standing on starkly contrasting electoral platforms, there are far-reaching implications for migrants coming to the country.

Electoral Backdrop

Chile’s last presidential election in 2017 appeared to be an endorsement for more of the same with the Presidency alternating between former centre-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 disinterest in the political process which has since transformed into discontent.

In October 2019 public anger reached its pinnacle when mass protests broke out in Santiago, sparked by increases to public transport costs, and spread countrywide in a challenge to Chile’s long-standing inequality. After 29 deaths and an estimated U$D 3.5 billion worth of damage to infrastructure, reforms were made, and a fresh focus was placed on replacing the 1980 constitution introduced under Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

Even against the backdrop of heightened anti-government protests and the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration has remained a key issue in the run up to the election.

Migration in Chile

Historically Chile’s migrant population has been more European and smaller than that of its South American neighbours. However, numbers of people entering Chile from elsewhere in Latin America have grown swiftly in the last decade, tripling in the last three years to 1.5 million, with arrivals stemming from humanitarian crises in Haiti (ca. 180,000) and Venezuela (ca 460,000). 

Whilst under Bachelet (2014-2018), the now UN Human Rights Commissioner, immigration laws required no visa and only a formal employment contract to obtain temporary residency, under Piñera restrictions have tightened markedly. 

In 2018 Piñera introduced the Humanitarian Returns policy whereby migrants could be returned free of charge to their country of origin on the proviso that they would not return for another nine years. 1,800 people were deported in 2020 with some deportation flights staged for media consumption.

New Law

A new Migration Law will also come into effect in mid-2022 requiring migrants to provide additional documentation to qualify for a one-year consular visa. These visas are often expensive, hard to acquire and in some cases expire after three months. They will also only be available to those who arrived in Chile before 18 March 2020, when the government closed the country’s land borders during the pandemic. The Law will make consular visas compulsory, prohibit adjustments from a tourist permit to temporary residence, and make it harder to move 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 receive state-funded social security.

Whilst limited, the government does have a programme that commits it to supporting work done by individual municipalities in the areas of migrant integration and intercultural exchange. At a national level, the Escuela Somos Todos, supports students into school regardless of their migration status. The Compromiso Migrante has also been created to incentivise private companies and unions to take a non-discriminatory and inclusive approach to hiring and management, by connecting awardees with support from agencies like the International Labour Office (ILO) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM). However, this initiative is somewhat undermined by employers needing to pay for employees and family members’ return travel once a contract has ended. This has resulted in migrants working informally, often on lower wages that undercut those of local people already struggling with the cost of living, stirring xenophobic sentiment in the process. 

Polarising candidates

Jose Antonio Kast, a staunch defender of the Pinochet constitution, has capitalised on recent anti-migrant protests along Chile’s northern borders to become the presidential frontrunner. In the town of Iquique, thousands of locals gathered to protest against the presence of migrants after a year-old Venezuelan settler camp was cleared by police. Protests culminated with the burning of the settlers’ belongings on a bonfire. Kast has since proposed Chile’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, digging ditches at the borders with its northern neighbours and the creation of a body within the investigative police force to “actively seek out [and deport] illegal migrants”.

By contrast, his 35-year-old opponent, the left-wing Frente Amplio party leader, Gabriel Boric, who up until recently led the polls, had spoken of no expulsions, and access to visas and housing for migrants. However, following Kast’s rise he has rowed back on commitments to provide access to housing noting an over 500,000 shortfall in national housing provision, and has highlighted the need to work on a regional basis to establish a quota system to share the burden. Chile is the third biggest recipient of the over 5 million person exodus from Venezuela, after Colombia and Peru.

 So what next?

With the government having given the army a border enforcement role, in the short-term they have maintained that they will continue with “evictions of all public spaces” as well as “the expulsion plan” of undocumented migrants. 

No matter who wins the election, the stringent provisions under the new Migration Law will likely contribute to an increase in the number of migrants living in irregular status.

Boric remains the favourite to win in the event of a second round of voting, but in the face of growing anti-migrant sentiment he appears to be ceding ground on his open border policy.

Even if he does maintain his commitment, the process of making Chile both ready and welcoming to immigrants (with an average of 200 arriving a day) will not be straightforward. The Piñera administration struggled to govern without a majority in both houses and the polarised nature of Chilean politics means that Boric would likely struggle to implement his liberal agenda without one.

In the last year there has been an 80% increase in Haitian migrants leaving the country, such has been the cold welcome many have received. Whilst an inclusive new constitution may be approved next year it will be the policies and investment that follow that determine whether Chile can make full use of the potential of immigrants and work with regional partners to reach a sustainable solution. 

If Kast wins, in spite of the same governability challenges, it seems likely he would seek to build on the ew law–and in so doing–deprioritising regional collaboration, minimising integration support and introducing physical borders, forcing migrants into 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 revise 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.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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