Chilean ‘Oasis’ Proves Short-Lived for Migrants Fleeing Crises

(Bloomberg) -- When Freddy Gomez fled Venezuela’s economic collapse in 2017, he sought a new beginning in one of South America’s richest and most stable countries: Chile.

But as the country once described as a Latin American “oasis” descended into violence and chaos over the past couple months, his life turned upside down again. Protests against a metro fare increase quickly spiraled into mass unrest, hurting the transportation company where he worked as a recruiter, and eventually costing him his job.

“Companies are just trying to get by day-to-day,” said Gomez. “If they don’t sell, then they can’t pay salaries, and many were affected by the protests; I am considering the possibility of leaving.”

Chilean ‘Oasis’ Proves Short-Lived for Migrants Fleeing Crises

Gomez is among a growing number of immigrants who may be hitting the road again as the Chilean economy, once a poster child for emerging markets, teeters on the brink of recession. Unemployment is heading into the double digits for the first time since the 2009 global financial crisis while growth is expected to languish at the slowest pace in a decade next year, the central bank forecast earlier this month.

As the economy deteriorates, the percentage of immigrants who plan on staying in Chile indefinitely fell to 35% from 44% before the unrest started, according to a study published this month by the Jesuit Migrant Service, a Catholic international organization that assists refugees.

At the same time, those who said they were considering leaving immediately or over the next year more than doubled to 11%, said the organization after interviewing 576 immigrants nationwide in October before the upheaval started, and 449 more between Oct. 28 and Nov. 16.

Currency Pain

Those who support family members abroad are shouldering the additional burden of a currency that has hit a historic low in the aftermath of the protests.

That’s the case of Fredlymar Suarez, a Venezuelan chemistry teacher who now makes a living by selling empanadas at an entrance to a metro station. The weaker peso has cut the value of the remittances she sends to her three children back in Venezuela, she said.

That marks a reversal of fortune for the more than 1 million immigrants, many of them Venezuelans, who live in Chile. By 2018, foreigners accounted for roughly 6.6% of the country’s population, up from 1.8% in 2010, according to government statistics. The percentage is likely to have grown further since then, mainly due to the implosion of Venezuela’s economy.

But as the unrest boiled over in October, more foreigners left rather than entered Chile for the first time in all of 2019, according to data from the interior ministry.

“For immigrants and their families, their most important resource is their ability to work,” said Richard Velazquez, Chief of Mission at the International Organization for Migration’s office in Santiago.

Chilean ‘Oasis’ Proves Short-Lived for Migrants Fleeing Crises

Despite the change in sentiment, there are no signs of a stampede to the borders. Migrants don’t have many alternatives to Chile elsewhere in the Andes, since Peru and Ecuador have tightened migration controls while Colombia’s standard of living falls far short of Chile’s.

Amanda Silva, a Venezuelan graphic designer who sells food at a subway station entrance every morning, said she had been shocked by the violence displayed by some of the protesters.

“The damage here is worse than in Venezuela,” she said.

But she’s not planning on leaving yet. In Chile, she says, unlike in Venezuela you can turn on the tap and be sure water will flow out, or flick a switch and see the lights come on.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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