Hundreds, mostly Venezuelans, hope to cross into Peru to flee harsh immigration protocols and growing xenophobia in Chil
The wind sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean buffets makeshift tents made of blankets and scraps of fabric, as sheltering migrants peer out, squinting against the whipped-up sand and fierce sun overhead.
This desolate stretch of the Atacama desert has been home for days – and in some cases weeks – to hundreds of migrants, mostly Venezuelans, fleeing harsher immigration protocols and growing xenophobia in Chile and hoping to cross its northern border into Peru.
But the same frontier that many of migrants would have crossed into Chile is now firmly shut in the opposite direction. Peruvian police with riot shields form a line in the desert near a sign reading: “Welcome to Chile” in English, Spanish and Aymara.
On Sunday, Chile’s foreign ministry said that 115 Venezuelans had been repatriated on a humanitarian flight. But many of their compatriots remain stranded – along with a smaller number of Haitians, Colombian and Ecuadorians – amid spiralling diplomatic tensions and growing anti-Venezuelan sentiment.
The human drama grows by the day as more families arrive, turning the patch of desert on the Chilean side into a sprawling refugee camp, where families wait amid piles of luggage, among them breastfeeding mothers and shoeless toddlers playing in the sand.
“This situation hit me like a bucket of cold water. We’re not used to these conditions,” said Leonellys Pérez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan travelling with her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. Sitting on their suitcases, they had spent two nights sleeping under blankets.
“In Chile, we were economically doing well but we missed our family and had always planned to return home,” said Pérez, who had saved money while working in a fast-food restaurant and had been planning the trip home since last year.
“There’s no water, and no bathrooms, how can you have people living here?” she said.
Peru’s President Dina Boluarte announced a state of emergency on Peru’s frontiers in April, deploying hundreds of troops to the southern border to reinforce police.
In recent years, more than 7 million Venezuelans have fled violence, economic meltdown and political repression, fanning out across the Americas in one of the largest mass migrations the region has seen in recent history. But with no end in sight for Venezuela’s collapse, many neighbouring countries have witnessed growing xenophobia – and rightwing politicians in the region have seized on anti-migrant sentiment.
Announcing the stricter measures, Boluarte tapped into growing hostility towards the 1.5 million Venezuelans living in Peru. “Those who commit daily assaults, robberies and other criminal acts are foreigners,” she said in late April. “That is why we have to reformulate the law on foreigners, to look at this issue of migration.”
Reports of crimes committed have steadily risen in recent years, about half of them in the capital, Lima, and its Port Callao. But several studies show that the data does not indicate that Venezuelan migrants are responsible for rising crime. And while Venezuelans make up 3.5% of the Peru’s population of 33 million, they are 2.7% of the prison population, according to the country’s prison service.
Last week, Peru’s interior minister, Vicente Romero, said about 60% of the mostly Venezuelan foreigners living in Peru had entered or stayed in the country without the proper documents. He said that had an impact on “public security, public services and employment”, adding that those within the country would be given a six-month deadline to settle their immigration status.
Nowhere is the anti-immigrant sentiment stronger than in Tacna, the small border city about a 30-minute drive from the Chilean frontier. It was the city’s authorities who requested stricter border controls, said its prefect, Stephen Ugarte.
“The population feels that the crime wave within the country has increased and many attribute it to the presence of foreigners, especially Venezuelans and Colombians,” Ugarte said. “Just as there are foreigners who come to work and seek a new destiny, a new future here in the country, there are also people who come to do harm. And we do not want them here.”
But the hardening stance towards Venezuelans has stirred concerns among those who are trying to help the latest wave of migrants, like Father Clailson Barp, who runs a shelter in Tacna.
“Any country has the right to introduce the migratory policy it wants,” said the missionary who belongs to the Catholic Scalabrinian Order. “The issue in Peru is that it is lacking in humane treatment.”