On 17 December, Chileans will head to the polls to decide if they approve a new draft of the country’s constitution, to replace that which has been in force since Pinochet’s dictatorship. Amongst the proposed new constitution’s articles, written by a right-wing dominated committee, is one requiring the expulsion of irregular migrants from the country. Although polls predict that voters will reject the draft, the inclusion of this article comes amidst rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and as well as growing international criticism, including from key UN human rights experts.
Since 2016, Chile has seen the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers. As of November this year, the country is estimated to host approximately 450,000 Venezuelans–the fourth largest population of Venezuelans after Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. With migration policies since 2019 making it increasingly difficult for Venezuelans to obtain visas or claim asylum, many have entered Chile via irregular border crossings. The combination of increased pressure on resources, lack of integration policies, and several highly-publicised police cases involving undocumented migrants has seen migrants and refugees, particularly Venezuelans, experience increasing stigmatisation in recent years. In January 2022 for example, Chilean protestors marched against immigration in the country’s north after a group of Venezuelan migrants attacked police officers at a checkpoint.
Throughout 2023, the government has promoted a series of reforms–in addition to the proposed Constitutional reforms–that could jeopardise the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. These have been prompted in part by growing pressure from right-wing political factions, which have threatened to impeach the Minister of Interior and Security if she does not ensure the expulsion of 12,000 irregular migrants by the end of the year.
In a 11 December 2023 letter to Chile, following up on a series of previous communications it has had with the Chilean government since 2021, the UN Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) summarised ongoing concerns about the country’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers:
“Information received by this Committee reveals a sustained and worrying increase in xenophobia and discrimination towards migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, and the negative perception of migrants and foreigners in the country. We are concerned about how political parties and government officials promote the criminalization of migration, associating migration with crime and general insecurity, as well statements by certain public officials aimed at stigmatising foreigners, especially those in an irregular migratory situation, including Haitians and Venezuelans, among others.”
Stepping Up Anti-Migrant Measures
Chile has introduced a series of policies and legal reforms that militarise migration controls and criminalise many migrants.
In February 2023 it implemented degree DFL 1, authorising the country’s armed forces to operate in northern border regions and to use deterrent measures (or even force) to prevent unauthorised migrants from entering the country. In April 2023, the country issued a policy circular to the National Prosecutor’s Office (el instructivo de la Fiscalía Nacional (Oficio FN N° 298/2023 de 10 de abril de 2023) which, according to the CMW, instructs prosecutors “to request the extension of detention and/or preventive detention to foreigners accused of a crime in the event that they are in a situation of immigration irregularity.”
Also earlier this year, the Ministry of Interior and National Migration Service announced the launch of a biometric registration system for all foreigners who irregularly entered the country before 30 May 2023 to register and identify themselves. The system’s webpage states: “It is a measure to strengthen security and know the identity of those who live in Chile.” While this process was presented as a voluntary one, on 30 November President Boric ordered police to arrest, detain, and expel any migrant who has not completed the registration–as well as any migrant with an outstanding arrest warrant.
The CMW’s 11 December 2023 letter to Chile follows up on a number of recommendations that the committee has made to Chile in recent years, which date back to 2021 “Concluding Observations” issued by the CMW after its state party review of Chile that year. The more recent letter expresses concerns regarding the country’s failure to implement all the recommendations that had been issued in 2021, highlighting in particular Chile’s growing criminalisation of irregular migration, stating:
“The Committee notes with special concern the legislative initiatives aimed at criminalizing irregular migration, causing discrimination against migrants, through the bill that modifies the migration law “to classify the crime of clandestine entry into the national territory” (bulletin 15261 -25). The Committee urges the State party, in accordance with general observations No. 2 (2013), no. 4 (2017) and no. 5 (2021) of the Committee, to refrain from adopting measures that classify immigration irregularity (irregular entry and/or stay) as a crime, as they could only constitute administrative infractions, which do not threaten people, property, or national security. or public order.”