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“The vast majority of Chile does not share the xenophobic and racist violence of the group that burned the belongings of migrants”

It was a devastating image that went around the world.

Mattresses, blankets, clothing, children’s toys and even diapers belonging to a group of Venezuelans were burned this Saturday in the city of Iquique, in northern Chile, as part of a demonstration against migrants.

The attack, described as xenophobic, generated a strong controversy in the midst of a delicate situation in some Chilean cities after the strong increase in undocumented foreigners who are arriving in this South American country.

Most migrants arrive from Venezuela or Haiti Looking for an opportunity, but faced with the impossibility of regularizing their situation, added to the lack of work and a failed social inclusion, they end up living in makeshift camps on the streets.

What is happening in Chile with migrants? How do you solve a problem as complex as this and how much support did the Iquique attack receive from the Chileans themselves?

To answer these and other questions, at BBC Mundo we speak with Carlos Figueroa, director of incidence and studies of the Jesuit Service to Migrants (SJM), an organization that has been key in helping and studying the migratory phenomenon in Chile.

What is your assessment of what happened in Iquique this weekend?

What happened was the accumulation of a process of mismanagement of a migration that has been happening in Chile from 2017 onwards.

A migration that is fundamentally Venezuelan, that has been escaping from a conflict, and that by not carrying out an adequate management, occupying the legal instruments that Chile has to host, end up producing friction of coexistence that generates discomfort in the population.

This has been amplified by an inaccurate speech by the Chilean authorities to refer to migration from a criminal point of view and not from a humanitarian point of view, which has led to hatred, stigmatization, and an increase in bad coexistence.

Some people who supported the march and the anti-immigrant discourse link foreigners to crime. The same happens in other Latin American countries. However, the figures contradict this statement because, in the case of Chile, various studies indicate that migrants related to crime do not reach 3% … Why does this perception exist?

One of the great responses that the State of Chile gave to this wave of migrants was expulsions. And in these expulsions a story was generated that those who were arriving through unauthorized steps were traffickers or rapists or criminals. This was generating a public perception that associates migration with crime. And that is absolutely false.

At the protest there were people with banners linking migrants with criminals.  (Getty Images).

It is true that there are particular cases of human trafficking, of smuggling, but they are the least with respect to migration that has arrived. The data speak of a very low percentage of migrants who commit crimes, lower even than the Chilean proportion. There is no data or study that associates migrants with crime in a higher proportion than Chileans.

A large part of the people who are entering Chile are fleeing a conflict, seeking humanitarian aid. And that voice has not been heard, rather denied. To have a good coexistence, the discourse of the authorities associating migration to crime is undesirable.

How do you solve a problem as complex as this?

There are different edges. First, the solution passes through international diplomatic political dialogue to address the origin of this migration. And that is a relevant aspect of the conversation with Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador.

Because many of the countries of South America have received a very strong migration from Venezuela and a political dialogue is required to coordinate actions, manage humanitarian aid together and establish concrete measures. For example, the case of Colombia that created a special statute for Venezuelans, for 1,700,000 Venezuelans. Those are examples that internationally can help to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.


And on the other hand, in the internal area, there is a need to address this problem from a humanitarian point of view, which implies that the central level, that is, the State of Chile, provides resources for local governments to establish shelters, generate basic subsistence spaces and sanitary controls, among other things. In other words, establishing a path that prevents people from ending up on the street, which is fundamental because that is what begins to touch coexistence.

Finally, it is also important for Chile to use the instruments it has today: to recognize as refugees those who are refugees. Last year Chile recognized 7 people as refugees and there were more than 18,000 Venezuelans who applied for refuge.

Various people and organizations in Chile have rejected the acts of violence that occurred in Iquique. What is the feeling in this country about it?

The northern regions of Chile have lived with migration for more than 100 years, a constant migration from Peru, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela, among others. In other words, we have had different moments of migration and I would tell you that it is seldom that one sees such violent reactions.

Before Saturday's march, several migrants who were living in tents in a square in the center of the city of Iquique had been evicted by the police.  (Getty Images).

And many people have come out to condemn this fact because they do not feel part of this violence, even people who are uncomfortable with the situation that is taking place in some streets of northern Chile. The vast majority of Chile does not share the xenophobic and racist violence of the group that burned the belongings of migrants.

Many people feel ashamed and hurt by those events that occurred in northern Chile.

But there are also those who support the anti-migrant discourse. How disturbing is what happened in Iquique this weekend and how does it reflect this polarization?

We have to worry about these signs because, although they are rare, they mean that we are not doing something right.

We cannot ignore the importance of these events that damage not only the image of Chile but also damage us as a society. This idea that it is more important to be Chilean than to be of another nationality begins to dehumanize us.

It also requires a strong will from the authorities who have promoted criminalization speeches that have not helped this climate.

Is there discrimination in Chile against migrants?

I think so. Especially when it comes to migrants who are poor or who have a different characteristic than the Chilean has of himself. Either race, skin color or habit.

We have not yet assimilated well the fact that Chile belongs to a global world, and that migration is a fait accompli and that it is positive for societies to have it. We still have many prejudices and we have to open our minds to live with people who are different. It is knowing how to live in the difference.

In Chile there has been a sharp increase in migrants crossing through irregular passages.  (Getty Images).

And that is something that not only Chile has to work but many other countries … what happens in Turkey or in Spain with Africa, all countries have an important challenge to work that requires a generous vision. One more vision of the world.

And which countries can be an example in the inclusion of migrants?

One country does it well: Germany. It has had a policy of openness to migration, with specific channels of regularization and inclusion.

There are countries that have a more established migratory custom and that allows them to better overcome the difficulties of the road. Because it is not an easy path to build countries open to migration either, but it can be achieved to the extent that one develops discourses and practices to build the image that Chile is not going to stop being Chile by receiving migrants. It is not more important to be Chilean than to be a person.

In recent weeks we have seen a strong migratory crisis of Haitians on the border between the United States and Mexico. Many of them come from Chile and Brazil. How do you see this problem and what is Chile’s responsibility in it?

The reaction that occurred in the state of Texas, with people who were treated like animals by the guard, reflects another of the countries in the region that has experienced a critical situation for a long time. And that generated an important migration to different parts of the continent.

In Chile there was a diverse response, several inclusion problems arose, a lot of discrimination. There were cultural factors, language created obstacles in the process of inclusion and discrimination when it came to finding work or living together on the streets. And also difficulties in the regularization process. And all of these things contributed to failure.



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