No safe haven: migrants face restrictions across the Americas
In September 2021, the sight of exhausted Haitian migrants crowded at the US-Mexico border revealed a profound human rights crisis in the Americas. Haitians have for generations fled a country that has long become unliveable, forming one of the region’s largest diasporas. In recent years, Venezuelans have made the largest exodus in modern Latin America, escaping a multidimensional crisis. The situation is unsustainable. Driven by desperation, migrants and refugees will not be deterred by restrictive measures; these will only make their journey more perilous. Solutions will only result from a concerted regional approach that acknowledges migration as a fact of life and a human rights issue rather than a security problem.
One day in September 2021, the world woke up to the surprising image of thousands of Haitian migrants camped at the northern Mexican border, trying to reach the USA. They were far from their island nation. How, people wondered, had they got there?
Their journey had typically started years earlier. They were not coming straight from Haiti but from even further away, mostly from Brazil and Chile. They had first headed south, embarking on a perilous trip during which many were attacked, robbed and killed, and countless women were raped, before travelling north a few years later.
Many Haitians who gathered at the Mexico-US border had arrived in Brazil to work temporary jobs during the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Olympics. They moved on when the jobs dried up, with some heading to the USA and many more going to Chile, where a booming economy had many construction jobs to offer without requiring a visa.
But in 2018 the political tide in Chile shifted: centre-left president Michelle Bachelet was succeeded by centre-right Sebastián Piñera, who set out to tighten the country’s migration policies. Piñera issued two executive decrees, purportedly aimed at promoting inclusion through ‘orderly’ migration, that established a regularisation process and convoluted visa procedures specifically targeted at Haitians as well as Venezuelans. Later that year Chile refused to sign the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Staying documented and finding a job became increasingly difficult for Haitians, who also faced an increase in online hate speech and racist attacks. By 2021, under cover of the pandemic, the number of visas granted to Haitian migrants dropped to about 3,000 a year, from nearly 126,000 at its 2018 peak.
Another political change sent Haitians in the opposite direction towards the USA, when President Biden came to power. Many set out on the northbound journey on the assumption that they would be more welcome there than in Chile. They would soon be proven mistaken, as Biden went on to reinstate Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy under which the US returns asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait while their cases work through the US immigration court system – a policy that makes migrants easy targets for organised crime gangs in Mexican border towns.
As a result, Haitian migrants remained in limbo, in deplorable conditions, camped under a bridge in the Texan border town of Del Rio. Those able to make it further were detained by US immigration authorities and returned to Mexico, taken into custody or – under COVID-19 regulations aimed at preventing overcrowding in detention centres – flown straight back to Haiti, a country many of them left years before.
Humanitarian crisis on the US border
On 17 September, the local government of Del Rio, a town of 35,000 people, declared a state of emergency. Around 14,000 migrants, mostly from Haiti, were camped under the bridge.
The federal government shut down the Del Rio port of entry and announced the deployment of hundreds of additional border protection agents and the resumption of deportation flights to Haiti, which had been suspended following the earthquake that hit the country in August.
Deportations were soon scaled up, although Haiti continued to undergo a vast sanitary, economic and political crisis, particularly acute since the assassination of its president in July. Many Haitians in Texas were, they denounced, ‘rounded up like cattle and shackled like criminals’, and soon found themselves back in a country they barely had any connection with, bringing back children who were Brazilian or Chilean and spoke more Portuguese or Spanish than Haitian Creole. They were dumped in a country one deportee described as ‘a war zone’ where the rule of law had collapsed.
The US government announced preparations to reopen a migrant detention centre at Guantánamo, close to the infamous prison camp – a plan one Democrat described as ‘utterly shameful’. Barely two months into the job, the US envoy to Haiti resigned in protest at what he called President Biden’s ‘inhumane’ treatment of Haitian migrants. A senior state department official accused the government of illegally deporting Haitians.
Many people across the USA shared these views and said so on the streets. On 26 September, a protest was held in Detroit. Gathered at the Spirit of Detroit statue, speakers highlighted the contributions of Black migrants from the Caribbean, while protesters waved the flag of Haiti and chanted in Creole and English. In another protest for migration reform held in San Francisco four days later, protesters in vehicles blocked traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Meanwhile, in Chile
While Haitian migrants were being rounded up at the US-Mexico border, another migratory drama was unfolding with fewer headlines in the far south of the continent, where people from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries continued to make their way into Chile, one of the region’s wealthiest countries.
Some Chilean people mobilised against them. On 25 September, an estimated 3,000 people protested against migrants in the northern coastal city of Iquique, the main point of entry for migrants crossing into Chile through unauthorised paths from the north. Holding signs that read ‘no more migrants’ and ‘close the border now’, they demanded measures to stop migration. During the protest, a violent group burned the belongings of Venezuelan migrants who had been expelled from a camp set up in the town square.
More protests were held in Iquique and the capital, Santiago, a few days later. Hundreds protested in Iquique, while dozens gathered a few blocks away to reject xenophobia. While both protests were peaceful, clashes with violent counter-protesters and police were reported in Santiago, where a few people convened by a far-right group protested against ‘irregular’ migration.
Colchane: a cautionary tale?
On the first day of February 2021, hundreds of people, mostly Venezuelans, arrived in Colchane, a small Chilean town near the Bolivian border. The number of migrants soon exceeded that of locals, stretching infrastructure to the limit. The town could not provide decent shelter or enough electricity or water to meet basic living standards. It had a single health post that on a normal day received around 30 people but was now suddenly seeing more than 250 on a daily basis.
Although the size and speed of the migratory inflow undoubtedly brought difficulties, the ‘culture shock’ narrative that spread rapidly only made things worse, enabling xenophobic and racist attitudes towards migrants and sexualised views of migrant women. While blaming central government for not recognising the situation as a humanitarian crisis and tackling it with a military approach, the mayor of Colchane highlighted issues of ‘loss of identity’ and ‘lack of security’.
Given its high altitude, winter can be cold in Colchane. Extreme weather led to the deaths of two migrants – and gave the Piñera administration the perfect excuse to further tighten its migration policies. It authorised the army to take on migration control duties and doubled the number of police and army personnel in the border area around Colchane with the aim of preventing further unauthorised entries.
During 2021, over 300 migrants, most of them Venezuelans, were expelled from Chile, in some cases without enough time to appeal against the decision. In April, a case involving the deportation of 55 Venezuelans, 40 of them without a judicial order, was criticised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which reported that further migrants were detained awaiting deportation without access to legal assistance, due process or an evaluation of their protection needs.
On 28 April, the National Coordination of Immigrants held a protest against deportations in Santiago, reminding the public that ‘we are not criminals, we are workers’ and that ‘migration is a right’.
By August, the Chilean government had packed five deportation flights with 547 migrants from Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, in order of magnitude. The target for 2021, as announced by the Undersecretary of the Interior, was 1,500, to be forced out on 15 flights. Deportations were justified under a new law that gave people who entered Chile illegally 180 days to leave without facing legal repercussions. Although the law gave migrants the choice to appear before the authorities so they could start procedures to obtain legal documentation, human rights organisations denounced this as bait used to identify migrants and serve them with expulsion orders.
None of this deterred people desperate to reach safety and make a decent living, so irregular entries not only continued, but even increased as legal paths closed. By September nearly 24,000 had entered Chile by foot through dangerous routes, and a dozen had died trying to reach Colchane.
Haitians and Venezuelans across the Americas
It isn’t just Haitians feeling the heat. The same is true for the many Venezuelans scattered across South America.
Migration crises receive much attention and are viewed with greater alarm when they take place at the doors of global north countries, as with the Haitians at the US border, even though these countries are better equipped to accept migrants than many of their less well-off southern counterparts. The dominant discourse on migration – which shapes public debate and public policy – focuses on south-to-north migration and tends to view it as a massive social, economic, cultural and security threat to host countries.
However, according to the 2020 United Nations International Migration Report, over the past five decades international migration has steadily but only modestly increased: migrants accounted for 3.5 per cent of the global population in 2019, up from 2.3 per cent in 1970. In 2021, due to the pandemic, numbers of migrants went down. Around the world, people overwhelmingly continue to live in their countries of birth.
Although migrant workers always move towards greater opportunities, the flow does not always follow a northward direction, and often migrants stay within their region of the global south. The vast majority of refugees also continue to be hosted in global south countries.
This helps explain the lack of global visibility of the Venezuelan exodus, which an Organization of American States expert described as ‘the largest exile crisis in the history of the region’.
Venezuelan migration is different from Haitian migration. Migration from Haiti – a country of 11.4 million, currently the distant homeland of 1.8 million migrants and refugees – has been driven by a combination of long-term, structural factors: an underdeveloped economy that makes it the poorest country in the Americas, with more than half of its population living in extreme poverty, extremely high inequality and equally high levels of insecurity and corruption, natural disasters and health crises long preceding COVID-19 but deepened by the pandemic, and routine state and state-sanctioned violence and human rights violations. Haitians have migrated in large numbers for generations.
In contrast, Venezuela used to be very rich, thanks to its oil. The fact that it sits on top of the largest oil reserves in the world incentivised it to put all its efforts into oil production, through which it funded the growth of the state and state-funded social welfare, long before Hugo Chávez came on the scene. Until the 1970s, it was the richest country in South America, and one of the richest in the world. But it has been deeply affected by plunging oil prices in the decades that followed. Initially driven by the commendable intention of distributing more widely the benefits of Venezuela’s resources, Chávez ultimately engendered an authoritarian, repressive, inefficient, wasteful and deeply corrupt state.
According to the 2021 National Survey of Living Conditions, between 2014 and 2020 Venezuela’s GDP contracted by 74 per cent. Oil revenues collapsed due to factors such as mismanagement of the state-owned oil company and lack of investment, made worse by US sanctions. In 2017, persistently high inflation turned into hyperinflation. The poverty rate soared to 94 per cent, while extreme poverty reached 76 per cent, and two thirds of Venezuelans struggled to afford basic foods. Unsurprisingly, crime soared, making Venezuela one of the most unsafe countries in the world. COVID-19 hit mercilessly as the country lacked a functioning healthcare system and most people had very limited access to medical supplies, protective equipment, medicine and basic sanitation.
In a matter of years, Venezuela’s population – currently 28.4 million – has decreased significantly, as millions of Venezuelans have emigrated. At least 5.6 million have left the country since 2014, an outflow that places Venezuelans second only to Syrians on the UN Refugee Agency’s list.
Most Venezuelans have stayed in their region, flowing into neighbouring Colombia and then further south, as far as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. In contrast to the hostility of wealthier countries, several countries across the region rapidly granted them temporary or permanent resident status.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Delio Cubides is migration legal advisor at the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute, a civil society organisation dedicated to supporting migrants in Chile.
Faced with an increase in migration from non-border countries such as Haiti and Venezuela, the Piñera administration began to adopt restrictive measures. Haitian migration was heavily restricted by the implementation of a simple consular tourist visa for entry into Chile and, like other migrants, by the elimination of the work contract visa.
Although we do not have exact figures, we know that the rejection rate for consular visas requested by Haitians has been high; testimonies from Haitian migrants that we deal with in our offices report numerous rejections for reasons beyond their control or due to requirements they are unable to comply with.
For migrants from Venezuela, a consular visa requirement known as a ‘democratic accountability visa’ was imposed in 2019. But the desperate situation in Venezuela continued to push people to migrate despite the obstacles, as migration restrictions do not address the causes of migration.
What these measures did not achieve, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic did: in November 2020 the government suspended around 90,000 visa procedures for Venezuelan applicants, and many others who had already been granted their visas or had their final interview scheduled could not enter Chile because the suspension of international flights prevented them from doing so within the 90-day period established by law; their applications were administratively closed without any consideration for the pandemic situation.
Many people have filed amparo appeals – writs for protection of constitutional rights – and have managed to have their cases reopened, but Chile has clearly opted for a strategy of restriction. All these measures were taken to regulate and control a migratory flow that was growing, but many of us see it as a reflection of the lack of empathy for the humanitarian reality that these people are going through in their countries of origin. Many of them had requested protection or were in the process of reuniting with their families, and their projects were cut short either by the pandemic or by administrative restrictions.
Restrictions do not stop migration, and instead deepen the violations of migrants’ rights, as they make them susceptible to the challenges of the labour market and the housing rental market and limit their access to basic rights such as health and education.
We face a regional challenge that requires a regional response. States should coordinate an international approach to migration, as is already being done by the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, led by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration. Further progress is needed in this process, as the Venezuelan situation is far from over.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Delio Cubides. Read the full interview here.
Migration is here to stay
At most, restrictions on migration by one country result in the diversion of the flow toward another, but usually they achieve even less: when legal channels are closed, more people use illegal and more dangerous routes. Economic ups and downs are far more reliable predictors of migratory flows than policy measures aimed at containing them.
The multiple and mutually reinforcing crises that Haiti has experienced for decades, and Venezuela for years, have no end in sight. Even if the migration policies of host countries continue to tighten, Haitians and Venezuelans are going to continue fleeing conditions that they cannot imagine could be any worse, anywhere.
And today it is Haitians and Venezuelans, but tomorrow it may be someone else. Migration is a fact of human history. Migration can be expected to increase as climate change renders more parts of the world uninhabitable. It is irrational to believe that an issue will disappear if governments simply look the other way. Rather than reinforced borders, what‘s needed is regionally coordinated responses.
We need to start viewing migration as a fact to live with, and make work, rather than a problem to eliminate – and we need to start looking at migrant people in the eye, see our humanity in them, and treat them accordingly.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States must tackle migration as a human rights issue rather than a security issue, and align their migration policies to global human rights standards.
Chile and the USA must endorse the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Civil society should collectively develop new campaigns to mobilise solidarity with refugees in the towns, cities and countries where migration is viewed with concern.
Cover photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images