Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees Defy Deadly Desert Conditions on Their Journey to Chile
Migrants crossing the desert. © IOM/Richard Arana
Jhonny, 26, along with his wife, Cribsel, 19 and six months pregnant, sit with their two children at a migrant reception centre. Sunburned and gasping for breath, the 3,700-meter-high altitude and freezing climatic conditions have noticeably taken their toll on this young family of four.
The family trekked for five hours from Bolivia to Chile. Since first leaving Venezuela on foot two months and some 5,000-odd kilometers ago, they have gone through five border crossings. "It was the first time we experienced cold weather. This part has been the toughest," Jhonny says with split lips and cracked feet. "We were not prepared with winter coats or blankets."
The construction worker lost his job in Venezuela and simply covering basic necessities became impossible for the family of four. They decided to leave their hometown of Aragua with just USD 450 and a backpack of essentials to venture upon the long walk across the Andean highlands, first crossing into Colombia, and later Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, sleeping on the streets throughout most of their journey.
Their story is far from an isolated case. Often in small groups, exhausted people are on the move along one of the most extensive migration routes in the world, mainly embarking on foot with periodic intervals by bus, taxi and other forms of transport. For Venezuelans travelling to Chile, the last hurdle is the grueling Atacama Desert, the driest and highest plateau in the world at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level and with temperatures dropping below minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Many migrants and refugees travel irregularly across these routes, confronting dangers such as robbery and the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse by criminal groups. According to Medical Legal Services, seven people have died since the beginning of 2022, either due to exposure to extreme conditions or due to health complications stemming from pre-existing medical conditions exacerbated by the inhospitable terrain of the Atacama Desert.
Near the Chilean town of Colchane, and upon crossing the shared border with Bolivia at dawn, Jhonny’s family, alongside other migrants, are relieved to find much-needed life-saving humanitarian assistance. They arrive hungry, and suffering from hypothermia, dehydration, and altitude sickness.
As of July 2022, there were approximately 127,000 migrants who entered Chile through irregular crossing, according to estimates by Chilean authorities. Many enter Chile every day through Colchane, a small village of less than 500 residents, of whom 85 per cent are indigenous. Many are often driven by the desire to reunify with their family members and to contribute to host communities.
“Our goal is to work and do something constructive. I want people to think of me as a Venezuelan who has something positive to give. This will help change the perception they have about us,” Jhonny adds.
Extreme winter conditions increase hardship
After several trying months since first arriving in Chile, Francisco and his family have had to grapple with low-temperature conditions living on the streets of the City of Iquique, a drastic difference from the tropical conditions in their hometown. The family of five now finds refuge at a temporary shelter financed and managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“We were sleeping under a blanket, embracing each other for warmth, that was moreover covered in ice. We had to use our bags as pillows to prevent robbery during the night.”
Maria, 18, has finally achieved a degree of stability after giving birth to a healthy baby boy in Chile. She now has a place to live in Iquique and is among hundreds receiving humanitarian assistance from IOM in the form of cash vouchers, hundreds of which have been distributed to vulnerable families to provide them with means to buy food, hygiene products, and warm clothing.
Across Chile, IOM has stepped up its presence and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to respond to the direct needs of migrants and refugees arriving to the country.
“We are distributing food, water, medical care, shelter and basic relief items such as blankets and winter clothes provided by NGOs,” said Susan Saavedra, IOM Project Assistant in Colchane. Furthermore, IOM has deployed a medical team to carry out first-aid care, an intervention that benefits migrants and host communities.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, IOM in Chile has had field staff stationed in Colchane to allow for the rapid coordination and implementation of humanitarian assistance.
In coordination with authorities and civil society organizations, IOM has put in place the necessary infrastructure to temporarily house the migrant population in transit, and attend to their pressing humanitarian needs. Since 2014, more than 6,8 million Venezuelans have left their country; around 450,000 live in Chile.
Seeking a lifeline
Janeth Perez, 36, never thought she would one day have to leave her beloved home. Back in her native Venezuela, she was a Math and Physics high school teacher, but the financial situation forced her to leave her life and profession behind. She began the long road to Chile, alone, and with the hopes of finding a new beginning.
Following an arduous 11-day journey by bus, she recently arrived in Chile and is determined to get to the port city of Valparaiso, approximately 2,000 kilometers south of the Bolivian-Chilean border, in order to reunite with her sister and start a new life working at a supermarket.
“With this new job I will be able to provide for my 15-year-old son and mother, whom I left behind in my hometown of Barinas. I am so grateful for this new opportunity and a new beginning,” she said, reaching Chile exhausted after a final ten-hour passage by foot.
Despite all these challenges, Janeth and many others are grateful for the opportunity to be able to work and support their families, both in Chile and back home in Venezuela. She dreams of regularizing her status, validating her university diploma and working as a teacher, her passion.
“The future I imagine is one where I can once again teach in order to earn enough money to buy a house and go back home with my son and mother to live together in peace.”
by Gema Cortés, IOM Media and Communications UnitReliefweb