International Migration in Chile: The Need for a Genuine Debate


Jorge Martínez Pizzarro, 
Researcher at the  Latin American and Caribbean Demographics Center (CELADE), CEPAL

Translated by Patricio Novoa

Migration is a process of exchange that has experienced an upsurge in the region—marked primarily by the participation of women.  Chile has experienced the most growth in immigration over the last few decades compared to other South American nations, although the estimated figures place it in the intermediate range, and the percentage of immigrants compared to the national population means the country is well below others in the region.  Compared to countries like Argentina, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, the immigrant population is less numerous, and, in terms of percentage, less significant.  It is clear that, in the nineties, the country perceived a noticeable inflection, as the arrival of immigrants became an everyday reality observable in the field of elderly care, health care, construction, and in many other services.  Despite the fact that the presence of Chileans abroad is still among the most numerous in the region, emigration of the native population decreased.  This situation called for a new policy and a clear government response capable of honoring the agreements adopted by the country internationally.

As is known, Chile has begun 2017 without a reform of its immigration policy, and with a regrettably poor, and completely inadequate, discussion on the subject—not even emigration has been discussed.  It is an unwelcome surprise that the new legislation on immigration, developed by the government in successive versions, has not yet been sent to Parliament for discussion. This is a costly mistake, especially since there had been many indications that this much needed and awaited initiative was well on its way.  It is clear that Chile has been left behind in this context—for example, Brazil has already submitted its proposals for new legislation this year, and Peru has taken a giant step towards their legislation for returned migrants. Argentina, which is currently in flux, continues to build on regulation passed several years ago—and which at the time helped to strengthen its democracy.   Uruguay has complemented its 2008 law and is currently in the advanced stages of further institutional changes.  If the 2015 Presidential Address had been accompanied by a reformulation of the Chilean legislation and by the right institutional structures, then some of the concerns might have been mitigated.  But if the legislative proposal is presented in the middle of the discussions that have taken place during these weeks, then it is about to face substantial difficulties. The nature of these discussions, and their provocative tone, will make them hard to ignore.

We are witnessing a fallacious debate, not only because of the unfortunate electoral atmosphere that characterizes it, with its fear-mongering and its illusion of control, or because of the apparent confrontation between the right and the left—which is very questionable and vacuous since political parties normally have little to say about migration in general.   It is a false debate because it is sterile and prejudiced.  Across the world, and in Latin America in particular—and here I am talking about international obligations and good practices, which nation-states must uphold—there is a monumental structure designed to facilitate international migration, not to block it. And this is the vision that I consider to be appropriate for the debate.

This is substantiated by the United Nations, in the agreements on integration and in the many international agendas on rights and development, whether regional, hemispheric, or sub-regional.  This is accompanied by civil society movements, networks of researchers, women, workers, entrepreneurs—for example, on the basis of the tripartite approach—and rights activists; all these initiatives are related to the common objective of promoting and supporting policies that will buttress legitimate choices to live, study, or work abroad.   Fighting migrant precariousness, human trafficking, and contraband are intense activities that overshadow the promotion of control and the defense of security.  I am hardly aware of any research where migration theory is based on these precepts.  States have only now invested their efforts in an agenda of sustainable development for 2030, where several objectives are included for the protection of migrant persons.  More recently, in the September 2016 New York Declaration, a global agreement on safe and legal migration was sealed.  For the International Migrants Day, the Secretary General of the United Nations has been emphatic:

“Each migrant is a person with human rights.  The protection and defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all migrants, whatever their situation, is a foundational element in the New York Declaration. To this effect, we need greater international cooperation between the countries of origin, transit, and destination, regulated by international laws and norms. We must reject intolerance, discrimination and policies encouraged by xenophobic rhetoric and which aim to turn migrants into scapegoats. Whoever abuses migrants and tries to harm them must be held responsible for his/her actions.”

Let me remind you that the international legal structure of human rights has paved the way for binding treaties that Chile has ratified. The State has agreed to honor them and directs its offices to implement them. Chile did so a few years ago in the case of the specific convention for migrant people, and is now in the course of preparing its second report. Additionally, the United Nations has special mechanisms, in particular the so-called rapporteur system, where the Chilean Gabriela Rodríguez played a leading role in favor of the defense of human rights for all migrants.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, different CEPAL subsidiary forums deal with migration issues. The most illustrative case is the Regional Conference for Population and Development, which arose out of the Montevideo Consensus of 2013. In this regional agreement, the need to work to protect the human rights of all migrant persons is emphasized.

How is it that we can accept, and not sanction, rhetoric that is irresponsible and which goes against these concerns, and which has even led some to the absolute immoral absurdity of proposing a “no more immigration movement”? I confess that I have read several opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, I have listened to representatives of the opposition and of the government, and I have a hard time following them.  Some focus on the speed of deportations, others on military service. As if they were not talking about real people, migrant men and women are sometimes defended because they have more schooling than Chileans, or simply because they are boys, girls, or adolescents.

The fact is that this false debate lacks an ethical basis, beyond the opportunistic atmosphere prior to an election.  The opposition to immigrants, the fomenting of distrust towards that other who is different, and the calling for deportation without due process, together represents a lousy diagnosis and an even worse prognosis if these measures could really ever be implemented. To confront these, we cannot be forced to adopt utilitarian positions, or at least not exclusively, although it is difficult not to resort to them—like the examples of population growth and the existence of migrant subsidies.  The point is that more than a few discourses denote the presence of elements that arouse exacerbated racism, the same that should be openly challenged as a first step in a genuine debate on the question of migration.

The current debate, if it even deserves the name, is also a false debate because it lacks coherent arguments, since criminals and public safety have little to do with international migration and less to do with the loss of domestic jobs.  In fact, this has been the warhorse of diverse candidates in many countries and in many different epochs, apparently as a sure strategy to halt immigration altogether—and then to assume total control, falsely allaying the fears of the native population by resorting to human rights violations.  The usual script has been to promote selective immigration.   And these types of initiatives worked always in specific contexts, since what is normally done is to jeopardize the other immigration that is needed:  the service sector, home care, the agricultural sector, and the key contributions to the global economy made by women.

Immigrants help to create employment, and it is clear that they are very well educated.  They also make it easier for women to focus more time on their careers, which was the case early on in countries like Spain.  One observation for those who believe that selective immigration is a good formula for preventing the loss of employment for Chileans: Immigrants with higher qualifications can really compete with nationals, since their abilities exceed those of Chileans.  This is the big issue with regards to the migration of those who are very qualified.  Another observation for those who believe that immigration brings criminality: criminal subjects always move skillfully within the territories and some Chileans are also involved in that.

Without considering the emigration and return of Chileans, which is part of the normal flow of people stimulated by global forces, foreign immigration has been, and continues to be, an unusual phenomenon in the history of Chile.  The typical arguments of researchers tend to suggest that the country has not historically been characterized by massive immigration—due to its relative geographic isolation, its shifting political, economic and cultural structures—and that the percentage of immigrants living within its borders has continuously been low.  The percentage of immigrants compared to the total population has only occasionally surpassed 4%, although this should not ignore what took place, for example, between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, when the country sponsored and received a number of Europeans—especially Germans, British, Italians, Dutch, Croatians, Swiss, French and Spanish—and was also a destination for immigrants of Palestine, Syrian, and Lebanese origin.

During the last decades, immigration has picked up again thanks to the participation of countries from within the Latin American region, where there are many flows of migrants, composed mostly of women.  These exchanges offer many opportunities for people, communities, companies and countries, as recognized by the many intergovernmental initiatives that are in favor of migration.

The 1990’s were an era of democratic recovery and economic stability, a moment when Chile began to position itself as a destination for regional migrants.  Coincidentally, it was a period when countries like Peru faced severe sociopolitical and economic difficulties, triggering the migration of many Peruvians, many of whom chose Chile.  The predominance of those immigrants and the fact that they were mostly women came to characterize this initial phase of the more recent immigration, which later would add other source countries and diversify geographically its destinations to include settlements beyond Santiago itself.  The lack of data prevents an accurate account of current trends, and this is another component of the debate: How long will it take to discuss the implementation of a national immigration inquiry based on an adequate sample framework?

We have asserted in various contexts that it is undeniable that immigration has had, and will continue to have, an important cultural impact.  And that it accompanies, and will continue to accompany, important demographic, economic, political, and cultural transformations, which although cannot be readily seen in everyday life, they are there to stay.  Protecting the rights of migrants benefits Chilean society in general, and doing so is an example of inclusive social protection.

These are issues that promote a genuine debate, which shows us that it is not the well-being of the native population that is at stake, and which helps to prevent the undesired effects of immigration—typically, precariousness and human trafficking—which involve unfortunate situations and contradictions for many.  It is why it is so important to prioritize the defense of human rights for all migrants, whatever their administrative status, establishing the conditions necessary for the process to be reliable and safe, just as it is stated in the international agreement secured in September of 2016.

Uncertainty lays ahead, a situation that is understandable considering the absence of a refurbished policy, as well as the absence of institutions that live up to what was promised in the Presidential Address of 2015, institutions that are capable of delivering a stable and up-to-date set of policies.  This is a dire situation, as dire as the illusion that perfect control over immigration is possible.

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