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Estudios fronterizos

On-line version ISSN 2395-9134Print version ISSN 0187-6961

Estud. front vol.24  Mexicali  2023  Epub June 02, 2023 


Colchane. The construction of a humanitarian crisis in the border area of northern Chile

a Universidad de Tarapacá, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Santiago, Chile, e-mail:

b Universidad de Chile, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Ph.D. student with double minor in social sciences, Universidad de Chile and Ph.D. in sociology, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Santiago, Chile, e-mail:

c Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social, Santiago, Chile, e-mail:

d Universidad Alberto Hurtado. Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, doctoral student in sociology, Santiago, Chile, e-mail:


The purpose of this article is to analyze the duality that exists in how the States approach the current Venezuelan migration in the region between the humanitarian perspective and the securitist perspective. From the definition of Venezuelan migration as a “crisis” and forced displacement the result is the increase in more restrictive border control measures, the increase in irregular entry and humanitarian aid to those who are in extremely precarious and vulnerable conditions, unresolving irregularity or the consequences that this situation has on people who arrive to Chile. The article takes the case of the border between Chile and Bolivia and the increase of unauthorized crossings at the Colchane border and is based on the results of two investigations carried out during 2021, the first based on qualitative interviews and field observations, and the second based on survey results and field observation.

Keywords: border; forced displacement; refugee; humanitarian crisis; migration


El objetivo del artículo es analizar la dualidad que existe en cómo los Estados abordan la actual migración venezolana entre la perspectiva humanitarista y la securitista. A partir de la definición de la migración venezolana como “crisis” y desplazamiento forzado resulta el incremento de medidas más restrictivas y de control fronterizo, el aumento del ingreso irregular y acciones que brindan ayuda humanitaria a quienes se encuentran en condiciones de extrema precariedad y vulnerabilidad, sin resolver la irregularidad ni las consecuencias que tiene esta situación en las personas que llegan a Chile. El artículo toma el caso de la frontera entre Chile y Bolivia y el incremento de ingresos por pasos no habilitados en el cruce de Colchane, se basa en resultados de dos investigaciones llevadas a cabo durante 2021, una por medio de entrevistas cualitativas y observaciones de campo, y otra de los resultados de una encuesta y observaciones de campo.

Palabras claves: frontera; desplazamiento forzado; refugio; crisis humanitaria; migraciones


On Saturday, November 13, 2021, we arrived at the transit camp located in the Colchane border complex on the northern border of Chile with Bolivia. We were conducting an information survey for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to identify the humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan population entering the country through unauthorized crossings. In July of that same year, four months earlier, we had gone to the same place as part of a research project on Venezuelan migration in South America. Between the first and the second visits, the situation had changed substantially in terms of infrastructure, presence of stakeholders and existing devices. The only aspect that had not changed was the flow of people who entered the country irregularly through one of the most complex border crossings in the Southern Cone.

During our first visit, we encountered three different types of entry, all of them through unauthorized crossings as a result of the closure of borders due to COVID-19. The first corresponded to people who had hired an entry service from their place of origin or had the resources to hire such a service from the Bolivian side. They were guided by smugglers through the bofedales (highland wetlands), and then, on the Chilean side, they took a transport (clandestine minibus) to their destination. The second group was composed of people who had been detained by local authorities when crossing irregularly or people who could not continue on foot due to health problems. These people were transferred to the police headquarters in Colchane. There, they provided statements, and then, they were taken to the Investigative Police (PDI, for its initials in Spanish) to make a self-report for unauthorized entry. Once the self-report was made, they rode a bus provide by the health authorities to Iquique, the capital city of the Tarapacá Region, where they were placed in health residences to undergo required quarantines during the pandemic.

The third group comprised people we met on the road who were walking from the Colchane border crossing to the city of Iquique. They walked on a road, approximately 200 km, that traversed from the mountain range to the sea, crossing the plateau and the pampas through an extremely dry geographical area, with high temperatures during the day and below-zero temperatures at night. This alternative was used by those who did not have the resources to buy a ticket. Many walked with small children, in groups of four or more, with dry lips from the sun and with clothes not suitable to withstand the harsh geographical and climatic conditions.

At our first visit, we were able to converse with a group of people who had been detained. The PDI had stopped a bus that was carrying more than 20 people who had crossed irregularly. When we arrived at the barracks, the police were taking statements, registering underage boys and girls and sending them to the health clinic for a preliminary check-up. Then, they had to sign a self-report, a document that enabled them to board the bus to Iquique. The women were placed in a small room where they waited to provide their statement. They were very tired, and many were in shock and afraid of being deported. One woman, a lawyer in her 50s who had her daughter in Chile, told us with an unfocused gaze that she thought she was going to die on her journey. She had fallen into the water, had lost her shoes and had to keep walking despite not having the strength to stand up.

There were also three minors in the room: two sisters traveling unaccompanied waiting to be reunited with their mother in Chile and a child under the age of 13 who was traveling with the brother of his mother's partner. The care of this child was assumed throughout the journey by other women who traveled in the group because the person in charge showed little skill in caring for him. The officers had set up tents in the courtyard of the barracks, and some social organizations sent food kits consisting of cereal bars, powdered soups and other foods that did not require further preparation. The policemen told us that many times they shared their food with those who needed it most (usually children and women). When we returned the next day, the women told us that they had not been able to sleep all night because of they were cold.

The situation was becoming extremely critical. Several people had died at this junction. The photograph of hundreds of people walking in the worst conditions imaginable raised alarms. However, the fact that these walkers had to enter houses in the small towns of the highlands, as a desperate measure to survive, was what finally led the authorities to take some measures.

On our second trip, we verified the opening of a transit camp inside the Colchane border complex, financed by the Government of Chile; the camp provided basic humanitarian assistance to those who continued to enter through unauthorized crossings. The manager of the camp told us that according to his estimates, approximately half of those who entered Chile by unauthorized crossing were going to the camp and that the rest had purchased means to get to their final destinations (Iquique or another city in the center or south of the country). There were also those who had to get to Iquique by their own means. The shelter, therefore, replaced the assistance that was provided at the police station. The difference was that now, they were tested for SARS-CoV-2, they were entered into a registry, they were assigned tents, and they were given a meal kit; additionally, shifts had been organized to take statements, obtain self-reports and provide health checks.

On the first day of our second visit, we arrived with members of a social organization that provided assistance en route to those who were walking toward Iquique. Upon arriving at the border complex, we observed a long line of adults, girls and boys at the entrance of the complex under improvised awnings made with clothes and cardboard to protect themselves from the sun during the day and the strong wind in the afternoon. These people were waiting to take an antigen test before entering. After waiting up to a couple of hours, they entered the makeshift camp in lines and in groups of approximately 20 people. They went through customs, where they checked their belongings, and then, the staff in charge recorded their personal data, provided a blanket and some food (soups and cereal bars) and assigned them to a tent.

Within minutes of arriving at the complex, a speeding car pulled in front of us. A visibly upset woman got out, shouting that her son was dying and asking for help. Because she was so flustered, she was unable to open the back door of the car to get the boy out. A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived with paramedics who opened the door and pulled out a 15-year-old boy, who was convulsing. Instinctively, we tried to hold the woman, who was about to faint, and we wanted to calm her down so that she could get into the ambulance and accompany her son. Her entire body expressed the terror of losing him. These were minutes of absolute despair transformed into an image that synthesizes all the risk involved in crossing this border: a too fragile line that separates life from death, a kind of macabre Russian roulette for those who need to migrate to Chile and accept this risk in an almost obligatory way. This situation reflected in the second element that had not changed between the two visits: the greater control, management and organization deployed to provide humanitarian assistance had not in any way reduced the risk faced by those trying to enter the country.

This article seeks to reflect on the changes experienced in this border complex during the pandemic and its effects on the entry conditions of Venezuelans. The field work allowed us to identify the way in which an irregular migration management system was installed in a context where the only entry option was through unauthorized crossings. It focuses on the Venezuelan case to make visible how the control policies implemented before the pandemic and the subsequent closure of borders as a result of COVID-19 caused an increase in irregular entry, deepening the precariousness and vulnerability of the people who were moving throughout South America.

Border control systems are a key element in the configuration of what has been called migration in crisis, which differs from the idea of migration crisis (Gandini et al., 2019); notably, these have become increasingly precarious forms of mobility. Through reports, observations and the results of an applied survey, we sought to demonstrate that the implementation of migration management systems carried out by governments does not seek to resolve irregular crossings but only to manage their existence.

Based on the situation in Colchane, which goes hand-in-hand with the critical discourse on humanitarianism, we propose that the concepts of migration crisis and forced displacement have framed the way in which the Chilean State has approached Venezuelan migration, defining a discourse of control and securitization policy.

The article is organized as follows. The first section provides, by way of an introduction, ethnographic accounts that describe two moments that are shaping the management of irregular migration. The second section addresses the methodological antecedents of the research projects on which this article is based. The third section presents a discussion on the concepts of migration crisis and forced displacement as frameworks to understand the duality between humanitarian and security approaches at the border. The fourth section provides an analysis of the results, divided into subsections that addresses migration policy since 2018, a description of the way in which the transit camp is managed, and the results of the survey applied where the situation faced by people with recent entry due to unauthorized crossing is realized. This approach has allowed us to understand the vulnerability caused by the measures implemented. Finally, in the final reflections, we return to the central argument of the article.


The results delivered in this article are the product of two research projects. The first is a project of the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (Fondecyt, Spanish acronym of Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico), whose objective is to understand the migration routes and trajectories of Venezuelans in South America, with special emphasis on the conditions of the trip, their life projects, objectives and processes of subjectivation. In this stage of the project, an informational survey was carried out at one of the border crossings in northern Chile (Colchane-Pisiga pass) and in the city of Iquique, where in-depth interviews were conducted with 20 Venezuelan migrants (in Iquique and Santiago), and 18 interviews were conducted with key stakeholders; additionally, participant observation was conducted in Iquique and Colchane. The field work was carried out between November and December 2020 and July 2021. The sample corresponded to people with recent entry to the country (not exceeding one year). Members of migrant groups, civil society organizations, local government officials and officials of international organizations were also interviewed. All interviews were transcribed, and informed consent was validated by the sponsoring institution of the project. The names of all the interviewees were replaced by pseudonyms.

The second project is a study requested by the UNHCR, with the objective of identifying the humanitarian needs of those who enter through unauthorized crossings. For this, a standardized questionnaire was developed that was applied in November 2021 to people who had entered up to 30 days before being surveyed. The sample was nonrepresentative. The questionnaire was applied to 190 adults in the communes of Iquique and Colchane. In turn, a survey was administered to 54 boys, girls and adolescents between 8 and 18 years of age. For the purposes of this article, only adult surveys were considered.

The research team that participated in both projects received two training sessions to work in the context of forced displacement and crisis situations. The first training was conducted by a psychologist who is an expert in the care of refugees and migrants; the aim of the training was to develop tools to respond in the event that an interviewee was in a situation of trauma. The second training was conducted by UNHCR; the aim of the training was to understand how UNHCR defines and recognizes refuges, along with the implications and ethical considerations noted in previous studies carried out. It is recognized that the survey carried out has a bias inherent to the applicant for the study (UNHCR) because migrants are familiar with the agency, potentially guiding their responses. However, the observations in the field and the interviews carried out in the context of the first project provide support for the information collected through different instruments.

In both projects, the researchers provided migrants with information on paper about organizations that provide aid, city maps and information regarding the rights they have in Chilean territory.

The beams and foundations of the crisis: border and forced displacement

The idea of a migratory crisis places Venezuelan migration in a different place than migration of a more traditional nature. The vulnerability and precariousness associated with this group coexists with criminalization and a strongly xenophobic anti-immigrant discourse. To address Venezuelan migration, the states have navigated between two apparently contradictory discourses that, in the final analysis, are complementary: the humanitarian discourse and migration control. Observing the changes at the Colchane border complex reveals the way in which both elements coexist.

Currently, it is common place to refer to Venezuelan migration as a crisis. The Organization of American States (OAS) refers to it as the “Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis” (OEA, 2021), the International Labor Organization simply calls it the “migratory crisis” (OIT, 2021), and the government and the media communication in Chile report on the total lack of control of the northern border and a migration crisis that has as its epicenter various conflicts generated with the local community in the cities of the north of the country.

Various authors argue that imputing the category of crisis to a structural situation such as human mobility implies granting a condition of exceptionality to a process that is part of the development of social and historical life (Nejamkis et al., 2021). Likewise, when a particular situation is described and named as a migratory crisis─e.g., Venezuela currently or Syria in 2015─it tends to be supported by policies of greater control that use the crisis discourse to justify the security measures that prevent entry (Crawley & Skleparis, 2018; Nawyn, 2019). The perception of a situation as a crisis can also mobilize a humanitarian discourse that emphasizes assistance to subjects in situations of extreme vulnerability, strengthening an apolitical construction of the subjects who are part of these mobilities (Fassin, 2016).

Hence, it is important to problematize the concept of migration crisis. According to Crawley and Skleparis (2018), Nawyn (2019) and Fitzgerald and Arar (2018), it is necessary to ask who’s crisis is this: of the refugees or displaced people, of the government or of the local population? What is truly in crisis: the subjects who move or the migratory policies? What are the implications of naming a particular situation a “crisis”?

Indeed, we maintain that installing the idea of a migration crisis enables different stakeholders to put into play the relationship between the humanitarian discourse and the implementation of greater migration control and management policies. Fassin (2015, 2016) raises the importance of recognizing the combined existence of policies of order and suffering when states approach the migrant and refugee population. Policies and measures are repressive and compassionate at the same time, shaping different repertoires of action and discourses of states and national societies in relation to subjects defined as vulnerable. Thus, vulnerability, defined from compassion, dismantles the political dimension of the subject by reducing it to a body whose survival depends on the benevolent action of those who define it in those terms. The migrant/refugee is defined under a particular power relationship because their presence is possible as long as they maintain their relationship of dependence on “humanitarian aid”. Any resistance or demands that the migrant/refugee exercises, that supports his or her status as a subject with rights, is considered a threat that breaks this relationship.

Therefore, the suspension of the usual social norms that affect migrants and refugees, such as the total or partial denial of their rights as well as the existence of ambiguous legal figures and transitory status, are accepted by national societies because they are implemented on subjects who have been defined in advance as incomplete, without the right to have rights. Their condition of being at risk could eventually awaken empathy and compassion under an attention inspired by “human needs” and “suffering”. In this sense, according to Butler (2010), the condition of vulnerable subjects is the product of the social frameworks that national societies and repressive and compassionate policies build on these lives that are not sufficiently guaranteed.

Following Fassin (2015), the interpretation of this vulnerability remains open to the different social and historical contexts in which it occurs. It can be accompanied by xenophobic discourses and manifestations toward the migrant population, or it can generate humanitarian reception and protection practices and policies. Vulnerability can also be combined with discourses of criminalization that seek to nullify said compassion or relegate it to bodies defined as more defenseless, such as children, older adults and women. In this sense, more than a paradox, criminalization on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other seem to be the components of the dehumanization of migrants and their narrative justification of the degradation of their rights.

Borders and international forced displacement

The development of border studies has made it possible to understand that the limits that separate states are social constructions (Balibar, 2010; Brotherton & Kretsedemas, 2018; Vollmer, 2017) and that, as such, they constitute a space for the reproduction of the social order to the extent that they define who belongs and who does not belong to the national community, as well as the global geopolitical and economic order (Balibar, 2010; Mezzadra, 2005). By emphasizing the political dimension of the nation state, border studies indicate that in the face of destabilization produced by the continuous movement of people, states reinforce securitization policies, accentuating the distinction between wanted and unwanted migrants (Stefoni Espinoza et al., 2018). Control is directed toward the latter to hinder or prevent their entry (Bigo, 2015; Brotherton & Kretsedemas, 2018; De Genova, 2018; Domenech, 2020).

According to Sørensen and Gammeltoft Hansen (2013), one of the consequences of securitization policies is the development of the “migration industry” in border contexts associated with an increase in violence, greater insecurity on the routes and higher costs that must be paid by migrants (Sørensen & Gammeltoft Hansen, 2013). This situation makes it possible to question the effectiveness of border control policies and makes visible the spaces that these policies leave for the development of a complex social framework that articulates legal and illegal practices, small and large, to transfer thousands of people through different territorial limits.

In this scenario, the lack of protection that migrants experience when crossing increasingly protected borders is the result of them being considered as noncitizens by the states involved and their vulnerability to being the object of the immigration industry. The way in which they are categorized, enunciated and classified gives an important clue: passers-by, illegals, criminals, internationally displaced persons, refugees, and criminals, among others. These categories concentrate what the states fear and reject with more determination, turning them into subjects who are outside their legal protection, mere bodies without rights, bare life according to Agamben (2006), who move through rivers, cities, jungles, mountains and deserts. The control devices that act on those people who have been categorized as undesirable (refugees, illegals, and displaced persons) manage to strip them of their rights and the legitimacy of being in the territory, leaving them in a status of irregularity in which it is increasingly hard to get out. However, they continue to challenge the limits of the nation state, break through these barriers and remain however they can.

Forced migration, similar to migratory crisis, opens space for the duality between the humanitarian approach and that of securitization. It is an illegitimate movement for the states, a product of conditions usually associated with generalized violence or socionatural disasters in countries of origin. This type of mobility is resisted by the states, who will seek to hinder migrant entry and, if possible, keep individuals from leaving the territories in which they are despite recognizing the vulnerability they face.

Posada (2009) distinguishes three subcategories within this group: internal displacement, international displacement and refuge. Displacement in Latin America has been marked since the 1980s by the different internal armed conflicts in Central America and the worsening of the Colombian armed conflict, which is also linked to organized crime and drug trafficking (Jubilut, 2016; Macaya-Aguirre & Concha de la Carrera, 2020). These conflicts force people to leave their territories to find a safer place to live. Most of the displacement occurs within the boundaries of the nation state, which is why it is called internal displacement. In these cases, there is little capacity of the international system to protect the human rights of these people under the argument of state sovereignty and the principle of nonintervention in internal conflicts. This demonstrates the limits of the international protection system for the protection of the rights of all people (Posada, 2009). When these people cross a national border, there is talk of forced international displacement, which increases the pool of unwanted migrants for the states.

Refuge, as a legal category of the international human rights protection system, allows a small group of forced migrants, illegitimate to the state, to become legitimate under the principle of nonrefoulement (Crawley & Skleparis, 2018). In the case of Latin America, the Cartagena Declaration (1984) incorporates conditions such as generalized violence and internal conflicts into the definition of refugees adopted in the Geneva Convention (1951). The Cartagena Declaration adds the following to the definition provided through the Geneva Convention: “All those people who feel a threat to their life, safety or freedom, due to cases of generalized violence, internal conflicts, massive human rights violations or other circumstances that have caused disturbances of the public order” (ACNUR, 1984).

However, although the laws of the states have incorporated the definition detailed in the Cartagena Declaration, in practice, the increasing restrictions to request refuge or to be recognized as a refugee prevent this recognition (which becomes protection) and keeps them in illegitimacy or administrative limbo awaiting a resolution to requests.

Marcogliese (2019) notes that forced displacement in South America has intensified exponentially since the mid-2000s, especially since 2010 with the armed conflict in Colombia and the current situation in Venezuela, which has generated the emigration of more than seven million people (R4V Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2022).

International forced displacement is a complex type of mobility. The states avoid the recognition of refuge for what they see as unwanted migrants. A series of measures, policies, discourses and images transform them into subjects devoid of rights, rejected and excluded. Their efforts to reach what is thought to be a safer country contrast with the series of policies that seek to curb their entry and criminalize their presence (Dufraix Tapia & Quinteros Rojas, 2017; Liberona Concha, 2015; Liberona Concha & López San Francisco, 2018; Liberona Concha et al., 2021).

Next, the measures that have been implemented in Chile, from 2018 onward, that have sought to keep certain groups of migrants outside the borders, accentuating their undesirability, are analyzed. These same measures have made it clear what desired and accepted migration is. Furthermore, we analyze the measures implemented in Colchane to manage the irregularity caused by these policies and deepen the critical humanitarian situation in which migrants arrive in the country.


Migration policy in Chile: from national security to the closure of the border to the unwanted

Migration policy in Chile during the last 50 years has some continuity in terms of entry restrictions, with a major shift from 2018. In that year, President Piñera (2018-2022) outlined the focus of his immigration policy on the strengthening of entry restrictions (Vásquez et al., 2021).

Thayer Correa et al. (2020) distinguish three stages in migration policy in recent years. The first is situated between 1992 and 2004 and has been defined as the “politics of nonpolitics” (Stefoni, 2011), that is, a period in which migration governance was carried out using Decree Law 1094, without major changes to the regulations. Some of the measures implemented were migratory regularization, the creation of the “border zone resident” category for inhabitants of border towns and the ratification of the principle of nonrefoulement in the approval of the Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1951 in 1996. The second stage occurred between 2005 and 2017 and included the governments of Lagos, the first and second governments of Bachelet (2006-2010; 2014-2018) and the first government of Piñera (2010-2014). This stage was characterized by a significant increase in state actions both at the central and local levels; however, many of these measures presented a low level of institutionalization. In this period, a series of initiatives carried out by the local governments themselves stand out, such as the opening of migrant offices in various municipalities of the country (Thayer Correa, Stang & Dilla Rodríguez, 2020) and the preparation of Presidential Instruction No. 5 (November 5, 2015), in which the Guidelines for a Migration Policy were established, which state that it is the duty of the state to apply the human rights standards enshrined in international instruments ratified by Chile. The third stage begins with the introduction of a new immigration bill and the later implementation of a series of measures carried out during the second Piñera government (2018-2022), among which the following stand out (Stefoni et al., 2021):

  1. Reformulation of the visa system to favor skilled migration. The visa for work reasons created during the second government of President Bachelet was eliminated,1 and new visas were created, which had to be requested from the place of origin: Visa Temporaria de Oportunidades (Temporary Opportunity Visa), which grants a permit to reside and work for one year, extendable for another 12 months; Visa Temporaria de Orientación Internacional (Temporary Visa of International Orientation) for people with postgraduate degrees from prestigious universities in the world; and Visa Temporaria de Orientación Nacional (Temporary Visa of National Orientation), which can be requested in Chile and will be granted automatically to migrants who obtain postgraduate degrees in accredited Chilean universities. These visas, which bear little relation to the profile of migrants who enter Chile daily, became effective as of August 1, 2018;

  2. Simple tourist consular visa for a maximum period of 30 days for Haitian citizens. A humanitarian visa for family reunification was established with a cap of 10 000 visas a year for Haitians, also of a consular nature;

  3. Application for a consular tourist visa for Venezuelans (June 2019);

  4. Creation of the Visa de Responsabilidad Democrática (VRD) [Democratic Responsibility Visa] for Venezuelans, which had to be requested from Venezuela or the country in which the person requesting it is living in a regular situation. On November 11, 2020, this visa was suspended, and on October 4, 2021, the requirements for its application were updated. Currently, it is a one-year temporary residence visa (extendable) that allows Venezuelan nationals who have relatives with approved permanent residence, pending or with a residence visa valid for at least six months;

  5. Implementation of an orderly humanitarian return plan for Haitian and Venezuelan nationals; and

  6. Modification of the regulations of Law 21.430 (refugee) regarding the admission of refugee applications (2022).

The border was closed on March 13, 2020, as a result of the health crisis.

The implementation of consular visas acted as a mechanism that, seeking to limit entry to the country, produced as an immediate consequence an increase in irregular entry due to 1) the difficulties involved in their application and 2) the delay times for their review and responses to these requests. In the first case, visas must be processed from consulates, thus making it difficult for those who do not live in the main cities. An online system was implemented to upload the documents, but the platform was not designed to answer hundreds of questions from applicants. As there was no proper support to resolve these issues, many of the applications are rejected due to a lack of documents or documents with errors.

Table 1 shows the percentage of specific visas for Venezuelans and Haitians that were granted and rejected. For the VRD, only 14% of the total applications were granted; for tourist visas, only 11% were granted for Venezuelans and 12% for Haitians, and for family reunification visas, 84% were granted for Haitians; notably, there were only 352 requests in 3 years and 5 months.

Table 1 Administrative status of the applications for main consular visas from April 2018 to September 2021 

Democratic responsibility visa (Venezuelan people) Family reunification visa (Haitian people) Consular tourist visa for Venezuelan people (until June 2019) Consular tourist visa for Haitians
Quantity % Quantity % Quantity % Quantity %
Rejected 387.251 86% 352 13% 87.738 88% 4.394 87%
Pending 3.197 1% 91 3% 692 1% 41 1%
Awarded 61.474 14% 2.355 84% 11.311 11% 607 12%
Total requests 451.922 100% 2.798 100% 99.741 100% 5.042 100%

Source: Jesuit Migrant Service. Migration in Chile. Analysis based on information requested from the Undersecretary of Foreign Relations

With regard to refuge, the situation is even more critical. Chile has a Refugee Law (No. 20.430) that adheres to international standards (González & Palacios, 2013; Olea, 2012) and that came into operation together with its regulations in 2010. However, when reviewing the figures on applications for and the granting of refuge, the situation is worrying. Figure 1 shows that refugee recognition has been extremely low, regardless of the increase in applications.

Source: own elaboration based on information from “Minuta Refugio 2010-2020” of the DEM.

Figure 1: Applications for and acceptance of refugee visas in Chile 2010-2020 

Figure 1 indicates that the number of applications granted has not changed significantly in recent years, with the exception of 2019 and 2020, when it decreased to 30 and 7 cases, respectively. However, there was an abrupt decrease in applications in 2018, the reason for which is not the decrease in people requesting refuge but the difficulties these people faced when submitting the request in Chile. Vargas points to the arbitrariness that occurs in the formalization of the request because the officials decide to whom the form is delivered. This space was at first rather informal in nature (questions were asked to see if the person was eligible to apply for refugee status), but later, it was formalized through a preadmissibility interview that today serves as a filter to apply for refuge (Vargas, 2019 in Stefoni et al., 2021).

These data show how the administrative management of migration has become a powerful policy instrument in hindering regular entry, with the immediate consequence of an increase in irregular entry.

Colchane, what crisis are we talking about?

The Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2022) estimates that in 2022, there were slightly more than seven million Venezuelans living outside their country of origin, among whom approximately 80% reside in a country in the region. An estimated 560 000 Venezuelans live in Chile, making it the fourth destination country for this population after Colombia, Peru and Ecuador (R4V Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2022).

The increase in immigration restrictions that began in 2018 together with the closure of borders as a result of COVID-19 in 2020 caused an unprecedented increase in entry through unauthorized crossing. According to information collected by the Jesuit Migrant Service, the total number of admissions due to unauthorized crossings increased from 1 779 in 2015 to 6 310 in 2018, 8 048 in 2019, 16 848 in 2020, and 43 541 in 2021.2

In the last period, most entries through unauthorized crossings were concentrated in the Colchane pass, on the northern border of Chile with Bolivia. This border crossing is located in Norte Grande, in the province of Tamarugal, in the region of Tarapacá, at 3 650 meters above sea level (Figure 2), and is characterized by extreme weather conditions. In the summer months (January and February), there are heavy rains, a climatic phenomenon known in Chile as “the highland winter”.

Source: prepared by Beatriz Seguel for Fondecyt Project No. 1201130

Figure 2 Map of the northern border of Chile 

Mobility across the usual route taken by people who enter Chile through the Colchane pass occurs by bus, on foot or by “hitchhiking” from Peru to Bolivia, crossing through the border city of Desaguadero and then passing through Oruro and Pisiga. From Pisiga, they must cross to Colchane to enter Chile. Although the distance is not too great, the closure of borders during the pandemic and the Safe Border Plan implemented by the State of Chile forced people to have to go a long way to avoid police and military forces.

This route has many bofedales, which are wetlands that develop at high altitude (between 3 200 and 5 000 meters above sea level) and are made up of plants that form hard cushions where animals graze. Under these plant cushions, there is water, often frozen, whose depth varies based on the type of wetland. One of the main risks is that the plant “crust” can give way, with individuals falling into water that is close to zero degrees. Hence, “pasadores” have emerged; these are individuals who are familiar with the area and guide groups of walkers from the Bolivian side to the Chilean side. By not having adequate clothing or not having acclimatized to the altitude, the risks of hypothermia, falls, heart attacks and increased blood pressure increase (Stefoni et al., 2022).

Well, I do not really know why there were many people who said that it was difficult to cross. Yes, there were many rumors. We did not, we crossed easy; the road was very rough, that is true. There was a very large place, I really don’t know what it was. There were rumors that it was migration because we just walked around it on one side and with great fear; there were things like graves. (Entrevista 20_hombre_venezolano_Iquique, 2021)

(...) from La Paz, you go and buy passage to Oruro, Oruro-Pisiga. You reach Pisiga, which is where that cold is. Oh no! Well, many Venezuelans died there, girls, a lady, a man... Many have died. Yes, because the cold is something terrible; it penetrates your bones. You feel, I do not know, that you’re going to faint, like you don’t have oxygen. Well, that’s what I went through. (Entrevista 26_ mujer_Venezolana_Iquique, 2021)

As seen in the initial story of this article, there are different ways to cross and continue the journey. Approximately half of those who come to this place enter the transit shelter opened by the authorities in October 2021 (or the police station present in Colchane before the creation of the shelter). A second group continues to travel south via small buses, risking that the drivers will leave them abandoned in the middle of the road. The third group, which probably has fewer resources, wanders in Colchane looking for some way to get to the city of Iquique.

After they filled the bus, yes, he [the bus driver] said: we will leave here at 3 in the morning. As if he would wait for the last person until 3 o’clock. Well, after 3 o’clock, whoever arrived would have to wait. They wait to fill up. They waited to fill up, and they drove up to here [Iquique]. When we arrived here, we started to ask. We got there; I don’t remember the street exactly; we stayed here that night.

Interviewer: Did they stay on the street?

Interviewee: Yes, then we returned. We spent the day. We could not find, we could not make any communication; we had the phones turned off. And so, well, that day we also spent it there. (Entrevista 20_mujer_venezolana_Iquique, 2021)

The aims of the measures implemented in Colchane were to administer and manage the irregularity that was taking place. During the first period, the inhabitants and authorities of the area responded with the resources available to them, which were clearly insufficient. Months later and after demonstrations and violence with the local population, the government decided to open a transit camp. For this, the project was put out to bid and was awarded to a production company. The camp has the capacity for 200 people arranged in tents for 10 or 20 people. As it is a transitory camp, people are not supposed to stay for more than one day before being taken to Iquique, but this is not always the case. To enter the camp, the health authority performs an antigen test, and those who test negative are taken to the tent area by a group of facilitators, i.e., people who are hired by the production company to work there. In the tent area, the migrants are given mats and blankets; bathrooms (six in total) and food are available. Later they go through the Agricultural and Livestock Service (Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero), and there, the pets they travel with are vaccinated (thanks to a protocol established by the phytosanitary authority). The next day, the police verify the relationship between mothers and children or of caregivers with minors in their charge. Then, injuries are assessed at the Colchane health center. Although at first the self-report3 was carried out in Colchane, currently the PDI has a web page for people to complete the procedure once they are settled somewhere because they need to sign in periodically and indicate a residence address in Chile. The self-report opens a sanctioning process that can end in expulsion as the maximum penalty; not completing the self-report process means that there is no record of their entry into the country. Official information on this procedure is practically nonexistent, which makes room for informal information channels.

I, at least I did, because you never know the turns of life, and it is like a review for what happens to you or what you do, so it can help you on the one hand. People say no, that they can deport you. The thing is that people are sometimes ignorant because when the PDIs came, I asked them if that is to deport us, and the man said ─no, that is not to deport, that if someone does any wrongdoing here, they will review it and so they know who you are and things like that. Well, because they ask for your email, they ask for your phone number. (Entrevista 21_mujer_venezolana_Iquique 2021)

The next day, they are transferred by bus to health residences in Iquique for quarantine. A problem arises later because at the end of the quarantine, most of the people do not have the resources to cover daily expenses or to continue the trip to the center and south of the country; therefore, they are literally left on the street. Thus, hundreds and thousands of people in an irregular situation are gathered in the streets of Iquique, without any possibility in the short, medium or long terms to be regularized.

Humanitarian needs of people with irregular entry. When humanitarianism does not meet human needs

The survey applied in Iquique and Colchane in November 2021 to people who had been in Chile less than a month yielded the following results: approximately 40% of those surveyed left Venezuela in 2021, mainly between the months of October and November (24%), indicating that after coming up with the idea of reaching Chile, they did so more or less directly. However, 62% left before or during 2020, indicating longer migration paths and significant periods of residence in other countries. Based on year, 0.6% left Venezuela in 2014; 2.4% in 2015; 1.2% in 2016; 10% in 2017; 23.6% in 2018; 17.8% in 2019 and 6.6% in 2020. Figure 3 details the date of departure from Venezuela.

Source: own elaboration of recent entrants through the Pisiga-Colchane pass 2021

Figure 3 Date of departure from Venezuela 

The main countries prior to entering Chile are Colombia and Peru (Table 2), with an average stay of 10.5 months in these countries. Peru was the country where the highest percentage of respondents declared having tried to regularize before entering Chile, close to 30%, indicating that they have not been able to do so (Stefoni et al., 2022).

Table 2 Average length of stay in other countries prior to entering Chile 

Country Freq % Average months stay Tried to regularize
Freq %
Colombia 140 80.9 10 ± 16 34 19.7
Perú 139 80.3 11 ± 15 51 29.5
Ecuador 122 70.5 4 ± 10 18 10.4
Bolivia 111 64.2 1 + 7 9 5.2
Brasil 3 1.7 4 ± 3 1 0.6
Argentina 2 1.2 0.5 ± 0.7 1 0.6

Source: own elaboration of recent entrants through the Pisiga-Colchane pass 2021

A critical aspect of this recent entry is the absence of documents. The highest percentage of those surveyed had a Venezuelan identity card (90.2%), and only 27% stated that they had a passport in their possession. The most substantial problem is that among this group, only 7.5% reported having a valid passport (Table 3). The situation is critical because obtaining a Venezuelan passport in the current conditions is very difficult; therefore, the requirement of possessing this document for regularization leaves practically the entire population without the possibility of regularization.

Table 3 Documents declared in the possession of the respondents 

You have it in your possession It is currently valid
Yes % Yes %
Passport 46 26.6 13 7.5
Identity card issued in your country of origin (DNI) 156 90.2 143 82.7
Identity card issued in another country 16 9.2 11 6.4
Birth certificate/certificate 54 31.2 44 25.4
Residence in another country 24 13.9 13 7.5
Residence in Chile/Chilean identity card of resident 5 2.9 0 0
Proof of self-report/Alien offender card 19 11.0 7 4.0

Source: own elaboration of recent entrants through the Pisiga-Colchane pass 2021

Of the total number of respondents, only 6 (3.5%) requested refuge, and 3 requested a visa (1.7%). Regarding the self-reporting process, 27 people (15.6%) completed it, 39 (22.5%) planned to do so, 6 (3.5%) knew the process but did not complete it, and 98 (56.6%) declared they did not know about it. These data are relevant and denote the great lack of information regarding the purpose of a self-report.

To determine the humanitarian needs that emerge in the context described and with the characteristics of the people who have crossed the border, the survey was framed around the needs of the UNHCR. Here, three areas are noted that seem most significant: accommodation, health and food security.

a) Accommodation

Of those surveyed, 74.6% (129) stated that they did not have a place to sleep that same night. When asked where they had regularly slept in the last week, 32 (18.5%) declared that they had paid for a hostel, hotel or similar; 28 (16.2%) slept in free shelters; 85 (49.1%) slept in tents in public spaces; and 23 (13.3%) slept in buses while traveling (multiple responses). The fact that practically 50% of those surveyed slept on the street underscores the extreme precariousness faced by this population.

When asked if it was cold at night, 100 of the respondents (57.8%) answered that every night was cold, 23 (13.3%) reported that most nights were cold, 25 (14.5%) responded that only occasionally were night cold, 8 (4.6%) reported that the nights were almost never cold, and 14 (8.1%) reported that the nights were never cold. Importantly, the study was carried out in November, which is not one of the coldest months in Chile. The absence of suitable clothing makes it even more difficult to cope with the cold. The following field note demonstrates that cold temperatures are a daily situation.

It starts to get cold; the cold of the pampas is different, very dry and usually accompanied by wind. Antonio begins to jump to warm up. I notice that he is dressed only in shorts, a shirt and sandals. I ask him if he has any more clothes to keep warm (I had just put on a vest; I was wearing long pants and sneakers), and he says no, that all he has is what he is wearing. Children run barefoot; they have runny noses. (notas de campo_Autor 1_Toma en Alto Hospicio_27 julio 2021)

b) Health

When asked about their general state of health, 24.3% evaluated it between poor and fair. This percentage increased when asking only about their physical health. In this case, 52 people (30%) indicated that their health was poor or fair. Regarding mental health, 50 people (28.9%) evaluated their state of health between very bad and fair, 70 participants (40.5%) reported feeling anxious/nervous, and 39 (22.5%) felt discouraged or down, almost every day during the last two weeks.

Of those surveyed, 20.8% (36 people) reported having a diagnosed chronic disease, the most frequent being asthma (7.5%) and high blood pressure (4.6%). A total of 17.9% (31 people) were prescribed a drug indicated for permanent use, among whom 21 (12.1%) had their treatment interrupted recently.

The participants were asked if they knew how the health system worked in Chile, to which only nine (5.2%) answered yes. Of the total respondents, 37 (21.4%) required health care since entering Chile, and only 24 (13.9%) declared having had access to this care. The most frequent need for health care was a PCR test (24 people, 14.4%), followed by symptoms of discomfort (mountain sickness, pain, and decompensation), reported by nine people (5.4%). Of those surveyed, 29 (16.8%) reported having had COVID-19; 12.7% (22 people) were vaccinated against COVID-19 in Chile, 116 (67.1%) were vaccinated against COVID-19 in another country, and 32 (18.5%) were not vaccinated.

Of the women surveyed, eight were pregnant, of whom only four reported having had pregnancy check-ups in the first month.

c) Food needs

Food is an aspect that is significantly affected in this population group. Here, we distinguish between the most recent situation, i.e., the previous week, coinciding with travel to Chile, and the longer-term situation, referring to the last three months prior to arrival in Chile.

As seen in Table 4, the minimum daily meal frequency in the previous week was not reached for any of the three meals, with no percentages reaching 50%. Only 28% of those surveyed indicated that they had breakfast every day of the last week, 41% indicated that they had lunch every day of the week, and 31% indicated that they had dinner every day of the last week. This accounts for the difficult conditions of the trip and the precarious situation in which they find themselves in Chile.

Table 4 Frequency of meals during the last week 

Never Once a week 2 to 3 times a week 4 to 6 times a week Every day
Freq % Freq % Freq % Freq % Freq %
Breakfast 40 23.1 20 11.6 52 30.1 9 5.2 49 28.3
Lunch 13 7.5 10 5.8 54 31.2 20 11.6 72 41.6
Afternoon tea or dinner 27 15.6 21 12.1 46 26.6 18 10.4 55 31.8

Source: own elaboration for recent entrants through the Pisiga-Colchane pass 2021

In the field conversations and observations, people indicated that their diet recently was snacks, food that people gave them or food products they purchased after collecting some money.

Furthermore, during the journey, a large proportion of the population sleeps on the street, in buses and in semipublic spaces such as bus stations and gas stations, among others.

Final thoughts: understanding what the crisis is

The case presented here reflects the duality between security policies and discourses and the humanitarian measures implemented by the governments themselves. The scenario where this duality occurs is Venezuelan migration, defined as a migration crisis in the context of forced displacement. Both elements enable the adoption of more restrictive control measures. The irregularity that is generated from the greater restrictions is approached from a fairly basic management that consists of providing humanitarian aid to those who are in conditions of extreme precariousness and vulnerability, without solving what generates irregularity or the consequences that this situation has on the people who come to the country.

Forced displacement is a type of mobility that is not desired by the states; therefore, associating the exit conditions that this displacement generates with the idea of a migratory crisis politically enables the closure of borders by receiving states. This concept of crisis does not consider the precariousness that arises from the conditions in which the transit occurs and the growing irregularity as a result of the greater restrictions on entry that define the different countries of the region. In this work, it has been seen how the crisis has less to do with the conditions of exit and more with the living conditions that are generating restrictions imposed by the different countries and how this is affecting the trajectory and the route of the people.

This article problematizes the concept of crisis as it has been used by governments and international organizations and emphasizes that the crisis lies in the vulnerability to which people who seek, from country to country, a place that provides them with tranquility and security for living are being exposed to.

The construction of the border based on restrictive policies not only establishes the distinction between desirable and undesirable people but also deepens the vulnerability of those who are rejected. They are not only unwanted subjects but also subjects stripped of basic rights who roam the streets and are exposed to expulsion, rejection and violence in different countries of the region. The restrictive policies, the closure of the border that occurred due to the pandemic and the absence of public policies for this group create subjects whose vulnerability only reinforces the condition of victim, which requires humanitarian logic. However, this position of victim is extremely fragile because it depends on the compassion of whomever decides to deliver the aid. Wanting to leave that place of victim returns the person to the space of the undesirable, a place where xenophobia and racialization processes grow, making his or her insertion even more difficult.


We thank the National Research and Development Agency (ANID, Spanish acronym of Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo), which finances the Fondecyt project “Rutas y trayectorias de migrantes venezolanos a lo largo de América del Sur” (No. 1201130) and the Center for Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies (Coes, ANID/Fondap/15130009). We also appreciate the collaboration of Alfonzo Urzúa (UCN) and Josefina Palma (UAH) in the development of the research that gave rise to this article.


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Received: February 25, 2022; Accepted: January 30, 2023

* Corresponding author: Carolina Stefoni. E-mail:

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