Stranded in the Atacama: Undocumented plight of immigrants caught between desperation and diplomacy

Chile has been stopping immigrants in the desert before they get to the cities

CHILE-MIGRANTS/PERU Undocumented migrants mostly from Venezuela, Colombia and Haiti stay at a makeshift tent at the Chilean and Peruvian border | Reuters

Big, open tracts of flatland, a sea of brown, arid terrain—sedimentary basins and plains punctuated by rocky outcrops in the sand—and oases of vegetation far in the distance. There is no shade, but there is intense heat during the day and and low temperatures at night.

There, in the middle of the noonday sun, hundreds of people toting their most personal belongings walked exhausted, exasperated, and afraid in the blinding Atacama day.

Dust rose with each step and their bodies were lost in the haze of their own making as they headed north toward the Peruvian border, dispersed wide among the distortion of the heat waves, as if distance from others would help the elusive breezes find them.

At the northern edge of the Atacama where the Tarapacá region of Chile diffuses into the the Tacna region of Peru, they are hot and sweaty —Venezuelans, Haitians, Colombians— who crossed illegally into Chile from Peru or Bolivia in search of their Land of Opportunity.

Undocumented, and now, under growing pressure here, some are heading north to join caravans to the US. Most tell you they are going back to their home countries. It sounds like a rehearsed line.

Some are returning because of broken dreams and tough new anti-immigrant measures, but some claim they were recently intercepted by Chilean police, deemed inadmissible into Chile and pointed north in the direction of Peru on paths to avoid Peruvian checkpoints.

Their journey is tough and full of obstacles, natural, animal, and man-made— the sun, scorching and unrelenting sandstorms, venomous spiders and scorpions in any crevice or crack, packs of feral dogs and the desolate wastes. Many women say that Chilean police have abused them.

The situation for immigrants has gotten worse lately, spurred by the killings of three Chilean police by Venezuelans in three different acts while committing other crimes. So Chile has been cutting immigrants off in the desert before they get to the cities, and turning them back toward the northern border.

The problem was compounded when Peruvian authorities, alarmed by the waves of humans coming their way, reinforced crossing points and began denying entry to those without documents. There are young people, children, people from their 20s to their 70s, many with health and physical problems. Some are noticeably sick, others overcome by the conditions.

The situation has become a full-blown humanitarian and diplomatic crisis. The diverse peoples began accumulating at the border unable to enter Peru and unable to go back into Chile. Hungry, worn out and without sanitary conditions, they are in dire need of basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, and medical attention.

The overcrowding and lack of resources have created a dangerous and volatile situation. Peru has declared a state of emergency at its borders and militarized the area, and it has been pushing back into Chile those who entered without documents, which is most of them. So, the migrants are sandwiched between the heavily militarised forces of both countries.

Peru has complained that Chilean President Gabriel Boric is shifting his border problems onto them unfairly. Chile has reacted by complaining about the complaint and criticising Peru for "unproductive language."

And while the tit-for-tat diplomatic spats get ambassadors called in and messages sent back and forth between high government officials, the immigrants —and there are hundreds of musky and weary men on foot, besides women and children and some sick and elderly— camped at the edge of the desert in front of highways near the border.

Among them was a couple in their late 20s, Carlos and Maria from the Caracas mountainside neighborhood of Petare, with their little daughter Isabel; the family had left their country 18, maybe 20 months ago —they can't remember and they are too whittled to try— in search of a better life.

Now the owners of a thousand-mile stare and trembling in the shadow of the approaching night, the young couple claimed unconvincingly that they just want to go home. They could have been saying that they just wanted a home in any safe place where they could work, but in these camps with authorities deciding your fate based on what you say, there are unwritten rules as to how to talk, lest your words worsen your lot.

Merchants and homeowners in the Peruvian city of Tacna have withdrawn the welcome mat to immigrants complaining that their "nice, clean, organised city" is now overrun by people camping in their plazas and public places, turning them into Jerry-rigged refugee camps that quickly become dirty and unsanitary, with trash and debris accumulating in the surrounding areas.

It is not just the military policing the area that is up in arms; some citizens are openly calling for shooting "criminal foreigners" on sight to stop them when committing a crime.

Up to 400 people a day are reaching the border region. The exodus crosses six lanes of high-speed freeway as cars and trucks thunder past them.

Their eyes darting nervously, scanning for breaks in traffic, Carlos held Maria's hand while she held tightly onto Isabel's little hand; they stopped at the median after narrowly missing a rushing van, and Maria decided to carry Isabel on her back the rest of the way. They make it to the other side, but it is a pyrrhic victory, for the road ahead is uncertain and now they have nowhere they can go.

Invariably, some do get through the police controls and military cordons, a few hoping to settle and find work and rest at least for a while in the fertile Caplina valley just north of Tacna.

But Peru's President Dina Boluarte sees a direct relationship between immigration and criminality and has given them six months to regularise their documents to remain in the country, or risk immediate deportation. Chile and Peru agree, at least in rhetoric, that the crisis is a regional problem that requires the participation of other countries in the area, particularly those through which the immigrants passed on their way to Chile, namely Brazil and Bolivia.

Slowly developing are calls to fly to Venezuela those who claim their quest is a return to their country, but plans have either stalled or not yet started.

Yet the despair and the humanitarian crisis continue, caught between the political rhetoric of diplomacy and the harsh reality of a human suffering which is mounting and getting worse by the day.

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