Desperate Venezuelans Ignore Restrictions in Exodus to Chile

(Bloomberg) -- As Chile clamps down on illegal immigration and President Sebastian Pinera says he is closing the door to criminals entering the country “with a machete,” immigration from one country is soaring again.

The number of Venezuelans entering Chile on tourist visas leaped to 26,181 in November, the fastest pace since March, according to the Sub-secretary of Tourism. Arrivals dipped in the middle of the year after the government introduced a rule stipulating that Venezuelans needed to apply for new visas before traveling to Chile if they wanted to find work. That measures only seems to have had a temporary impact.

Desperate Venezuelans Ignore Restrictions in Exodus to Chile

The figures indicate that many Venezuelans, faced with economic collapse at home and unable to obtain the new visas, are fleeing the country anyway. The inflow also implies that a new bill under debate in Chile’s congress, which would prevent tourists from changing their immigration status once in Chile, could backfire on the government. Far from preventing illegal immigration, it may force tens of thousands of undocumented Venezuelans to slip into the black economy.

"The system the government has launched in response to the crisis in Venezuela isn’t working," said Juan Pablo Ramaciotti, director of advocacy at the Jesuit Migration Service. "People can’t wait for the consulates to provide these visas, so they are going to continue coming in as tourists.”

Venezuelans can now be found working in thousands of bars, restaurants and cafes across Santiago and Chile, as well as taking more qualified positions as doctors or IT specialists. Once they get a work contract, most immediately start to put their paperwork in order. That route may soon be closed to them though.

President Pinera has toughened his rhetoric against immigration since coming to office in March last year, at the same time as condemning Venezuela’s Maduro and reaching out in solidarity to ordinary Venezuelans escaping hunger and hyperinflation. Given that stance, he will find it hard to forcefully return Venezuelans to the country they are fleeing.

Back in Venezuela, life is only getting harder. The country saw the largest opposition rally in more than a year on Wednesday as people took to the streets protesting against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Poorer neighborhoods that were once government strongholds are now leading demonstrations over crumbling public services, a lack of food and healthcare, as well as hyperinflation.

At the same time, Venezuelans are finding it increasingly difficult to find a welcome refuge in Latin America. In Ecuador, the government toughened restrictions on new Venezuelan immigrants this weekend after a case of a Venezuelan killing his former girlfriend, an Ecuadorian. In Colombia, a humanitarian campsite set up by the government was closed in Bogota last week. With options for a new home narrowing, Chile is likely to continue attracting Venezuelans.

Pinera is trying to appeal to the hard right in Chile, and in doing so has "painted himself into a corner," said Robert Funk, a political consultant in Chile.

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