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Chile: South America’s Most Stable Country
Reluctant Host to Migrants

January 31st 2019
This is Valparaíso, midpoint up the mountain where poverty climbs the rest of the way. Built into rugged terrain along the Pacific’s rim, Chile’s oldest port city doubles as a UNESCO World Heritage site with richly hued houses dotting the Andean landscape. Local pride takes form in vivid murals like this one that seem to spring from every surface; the higher the climb, the riper the content. Up paths of compacted dirt and rough-cut rock, the celebrated Colonial-era structures quickly give way to shantytowns where corrugated metal protects against summer’s piercing sun and winter’s whipping rains. A fifth of Valparaíso’s residents are destitute and make their homes along the crest, many without water, sanitation or electricity. Their propane tanks and rubbish-filled ravines have become conduits for deadly wildfires spreading from nearby forests. Encampments of mostly migrant squatters line Chile’s major highways, they run the periphery of cities, and they’re overwhelming northern mining towns.
For this rather insular society, built on generations of white European traders and colonialists who minimized indigenous tribes, the surge of new entrants has become larger than life. Once natural barriers to foreigners, today the nation’s high mountain ranges and deep valleys are populated by Salvadorans, Peruvians, Colombians, Haitians, the list goes on. The fastest growing numbers are Venezuelans, of course. They are looking for some semblance of freedom from the gangs, the deprivation, the sexual violence, the man-made famine they left behind. But even as the most entrenched transplants contend, they will always be seen as outsiders. 
Chile’s democracy and growing economy have been powerful lures since its own bloody 17-year sidestep with dictatorship that ended in 1990. During the past five years measured, from 2012 to 2017, Chile saw a 300 percent increase in immigration. When the US shut down Haitian immigration, the western hemisphere’s poorest country turned to Chile, where 100,00-plus Haitians have since flocked.
What does it portend if, as migration intensifies across continent, the most stable country in South America is recoiling and positioned to pull back even further? Since President Sebastian Piñera’s immigration control campaign delivered him to office last year, he’s rejected the very global migration agreement Chile originally brokered, sent a planeload of desperate Haitians back home and issued an alarming set of data about immigrants and the country’s sprawling slums.  
One of the many solutions is an hour and a half southeast from Valparaíso in the Chilean capital of Santiago, where Laboratoria’s bootcamp is in session. Four dozen, mostly migrant, women attend the tech design class, and after six months, they’re equipped with skills for their first job. That’s when they begin to pay back a portion of their fees; the Chilean government picks up the rest. Laboratoria’s story is one of data, performance, and goals: they’ve trained 1,000 women throughout Latin America, placed 80 percent in tech sector jobs, worked in five countries, and intend to soak up thousands more of the 35 million women in Latin America who are under- and unemployed. Twenty percent of the student body is Venezuelan. Sara Guarguana is among the many millions who have already fled the country’s chaos; another 2 million are expected to leave Venezuela this year. Guarguana, 29, peers through her oversized glasses and breaks into a broad smile when asked about Chile. “You see change at the first moment,” she says. Here, there is work, there is food, and there is safety.  

Many of Laboratoria’s graduates move from the bootcamps’ self-described “sorority” of women into Chilecon Valley, Santiago’s growing entrepreneur community. Funding, launching and mentoring 1,616 start-ups valued at $1.4 billion and counting, it’s the promised land for the aspiring Latin techie. Firms like Laboratoria call themselves agents of social change. They know their challenges. Like the rest of Latin America, patrimony in Chile dies hard. At the same time its citizens twice elected a woman president, the government reported more than half of married Chilean women suffered spousal abuse. Integrating women into the workforce, much less penetrating the male-controlled tech industry is a major feat in this conservative and machismo culture. With women and girls the majority of migrants on the move in the Americas, host countries will become acutely aware of the need to educate and employ them.  


Want to learn more about the continent’s security challenges and the swirl of forced migration? See a recent Insight Crime Report for an acute focus on human trafficking conviction rates on the rise in Latin America and how migrating women and girls are at greatest risk. Look to local resources such as Mujeres del Pacifico, a non-profit that works to lift women from poverty, Fundación Techo de Para Chile helps supply Latin Americans with stable housing.